THE SIGNAL is divided into three acts or transmissions, all centering around a mysterious signal emitted via electronic devices. Phones, radios, television... all carry a virus that turns the listener or the watcher into a cold, rational killer. And there's the hook that bypasses this from a simple 28 DAYS LATER clone and into something that walks out into a new direction - all the blood-crazed killers are perfectly aware of what they're doing - they just think it's the exact right thing to do.
The intro is a take on the schlock 70's-80's grindhouse movie - bold, bright credits and a movie-within-the-movie of two bloodied women attempted to flee from a killer in the woods. But spliced into the sequence is the signal, which draws us into the movie proper, where Mya (deliciously cute Anessa Ramsey) and Ben (maybe not as cute to me, but I'll cop to "charismatic" Justin Welborn) are cuddling after a post-coital affair. Having to return to a husband she no longer loves, he begs her to run away with him: meet him tomorrow night, New Year's Eve, at Terminal 13 at the Terminus (apropos city name) train station. He shyly gives her a mix CD, and she leaves. They both notice that the phones don't work, and the television seems to be on the fritz. Thinking nothing of it, Mya heads home.
Immediately THE SIGNAL does a fantastic job of laying the foreboding in. People wander aimlessly in the halls of Mya's apartment building, and the violence, when it finally erupts, does so after a chilling build-up where we being to suspect that, had May's husband Lewis not been triggered by the signal, he still would potentially be an insane bastard. Transmission 1 involves Mya's escape from the apartment building, and her eventual decision to try and meet up with Ben at the train station. The budget is small, but this section wrings every ounce of tension it can out of the better-than-average acting, snappy editing, and brief substitutions of logic for the sublime. Venturing out of a neighbor's apartment she's hidden out in, Mya puts on her headphones, plays Ben's mix and determinedly walks down a corridor strewn with dead bodies and blood. It's frankly ridiculous, but the way it's filmed and the way the music evokes the mood she's trying to savor, that of her night with Ben, works like a charm.
Transmission 2, ostensibly still following the story, takes a HUGE left-hand turn, becoming a black comedy, with the focus on "comedy." And it's actually really damn funny. Mya's husband Lewis takes center stage as he attempts to track her down. He crosses paths with a perky woman trying to throw a New Year's party and her landlord. Bodies begin to pile up, and as things become more and more out of hand the more I found myself laughing. This is both THE SIGNAL'S triumph and it's burden. I would love to have see a movie comprised of the first and third act. I would loved to have seen a movie comprised of just the second act. But with the abrupt shift in gears THE SIGNAL has to really fight to get the steam it built back in time for Transmission 3.
The original mood and thread of the story is picked up again in Transmission 3. Situations come to a head, we learn that the signal may or may not be able to be controlled and even channeled, and things end on a happy note. Or maybe not. Because THE SIGNAL uses flashbacks and flash-forwards like Lost on steroids. The operative word is on "flash" - the brief flashes of time sometimes are readily apparent as past or future, and sometimes things a a little harder to piece out. And by firmly focusing on a very small group of people and how they handle their situation rather than throw meaningless theories as to the nature of the signal (they do that, but it's more of a passing thought than a significant aspect of the movie), the people behind THE SIGNAL get a lot more things right than they do wrong.
You can watch THE SIGNAL just for the solid horror story and get a lot out of it. Or, you can choose to read into things a bit more (is the signal sending the violent impulses or is it just amplifying our natural tendencies?), but either way THE SIGNAL is a shining example of what horror can do without catering to a the lowest denominator or kow-towing to the ratings board. If you're into horror or apocalyptic movies, definitely check it out.
* No screen-grabs this time: I watched this on my laptop courtesy of Netflix Instant Browsing. Hooray!