Saturday, March 8, 2008

Review: The Signal

Foil Hat: A Homemade Defense against The Signal
The Signal

It's hard to imagine a movie which is more firmly a product of the horror movie Zeitgeist than The Signal. Its central premise is straight from a J-Horror movie: a signal of unknown origin is being broadcast on every radio, TV, and cell phone, and bad shit happens. Specifically, people who listen to the signal too long get "the crazy," and start killing everyone around them for no apparent reason and, yes, often torturing them in a manner worthy of Saw, Hostel, et al. It doesn't take long for the city of Terminus, with just a few sane survivors fleeing from their murderous friends, neighbors, and family members, to resemble Dawn of the Dead's Milwaukee or 28 Days Later's London. And yes, The Signal has the same low-budget feel as Cloverfield (in this case, it actually is low-budget) and was written and directed, in three separate pieces, by three separate writer-directors, ala Grindhouse.

The main difference between The Signal and all those other films is that no one has ever heard of it, a somewhat astounding situation given its incredible nowness. Presumably the low-budget didn't include any marketing money, which is a shame because The Signal is actually quite good, especially in its first half. The first third of the film (or "Transmission" in the film's terminology) is the most effective; it introduces us to our three main players: Maya, her lover Ben, and her soon to be murderous husband Lewis. Maya leaves Ben in the first scene to return to Lewis, who's trying to watch the ballgame with some buddies. Needless to say, instead of the ballgame they get the signal, and from there Maya's apartment building deteriorates into an truly gruesome and terrifying orgy of murder. In the film's most brilliant move, even the sane people have to arm themselves and commit murder to survive, so its impossible to tell if anyone has the crazy.

The riveting first transmission gives way to the horror-comedy of the second transmission, in which Lewis ends up in the home of a couple still trying to host their New Year's Eve Party. In the first half of this section, "the crazy" is mostly played for laughs, but it degenerates into torture porn - with one sequence involving Lewis, an exterminator by trade, memorably utilizing his pesticides. The final transmission is perhaps the least satisfying filmically, but provides an effective emotional resolution to the first and second transmissions. It doesn't feature the horror of the first transmission or the humor of the second, but trumps them both for sheer visceral gore - not necessarily the best award to win.

I can only hope that The Signal, as a handcrafted grab bag of many of the best elements from contemporary horror movies, finds the life on DVD it so deserves. The acting is often slightly wooden, with only Lewis (AJ Bowen) standing out, but both David Bruckner of the first transmission and Jacob Gentry of the second offer up segments that mark them as talents to watch. The Signal is undoubtedly superior to Awake or any other terrible recent horror movie starring Jessica Alba, so check it out on DVD - unless you want to see it in theaters in the next week.

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