It is criminal the way "The Signal" flounders. After all, this is a nifty stab at psychological horror, buttressed by a welcome critique of modern-day media manipulation, with lovely, gooey dollops of ultraviolence. It's a wonderful premise and near-masterful execution suffocated by a shortage of bravery or even fundamental cohesion. "Signal" gets riled up early, but it quickly belly flops into a pool of misplaced ambition and badly aimed intention.
In the city of Terminus, a signal has been sent out over phones, televisions, and radios that turns those nearby into brainwashed killers. It's during this outbreak that lovers Mya (Anessa Ramsey) and Ben (Justin Welborn) are separated, forcing Ben to head out into the city to find the woman he adores. Standing in his way is Lewis (A.J. Bowen), Mya's husband and a man currently under the powers of the signal. He's relentless in his pursuit of Mya, leaving Ben alone to fight the absence of sanity and the reality of bloodshed as he tries to stop Mya from succumbing to the signal.
The reality of "Signal" is that it's actually three short films rubber-banded together crudely as some trail of narrative. The three parts are distinctly diverse in tone and quality, and their working parts rub up against each other unpleasantly. But lordy, does this film ever commence with a corker of an opening act.
Divided into three "transmissions," the first story, revealing Mya's experiences with the signal's initial eruption, sets an uneasy tone, blended masterfully with an 80's John Carpenter feel as madness suddenly explodes everywhere. It's slow to build, but extremely effective, baiting with tantalizing bits of character introduction, exhibiting impressive make-up effects, and launching a bleak apocalyptic tone that's worth salivating over. I was completely hooked watching these actors scrape around the sets, fighting for their lives while trying to solve the puzzle of the signal. The opening two reels of the picture are masterful.
Then the rest of the film happens.
It's impossible to completely dismiss where "Signal" heads to next, but directors Jacob Gentry, Dan Bush, and David Bruckner lose control of the film quickly. Of course, the picture concerns the loss of mental stability, where the signal creeps into the brain and presents hallucination and fragments of reality that gradually destroys the host. So would you believe the film becomes something of a comedy in the second transmission?
The shift in tone is jarring and doesn't balance properly with first 30 minutes, leaving me to consider that these clearly talented filmmakers (save for some trendy shaky-cam and open-shutter photography) couldn't dream up a continuation worthy of pursuing. Instead, they drove their project off a suspiciously Cronenbergian cliff to salvage what they could, ensuring themselves at least a good year of internet message board debate on the twisty, sadistic turns the script takes, plunging into the slippery hold the characters have on consciousness.
The magic of "The Signal" is that it is derivative of so many better movies, yet walks confidently enough in those initial 30 minutes to convince the audience otherwise. Once the rest of the picture falls asleep with a weird, quivering Hal Hartley arrow toward irreverence and unreal bodily damage (of course using the argument of psychosis to cover up the obvious seams), "The Signal" loses its aroma and whimpers to the finish line. This picture contains greatness, but only in the smallest amounts.
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