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Signal, The

Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // June 10, 2008
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 12, 2008 | E-mail the Author
"It was self-defense."
"You chopped his head off!"
"He had it coming...probably."

A bizarre, hypnotic signal has seized hold of every television, radio, cell phone, and damn near everything else with a speaker and an antenna, driving anyone subjected to it long enough to slaughter everyone in sight. Civilization has crumbled to a bloodied, dismembered end. The world as we know it is spitting up mouthfuls of blood as it sucks in its last few breaths. what? That's the question that drives The Signal: not where the signal came from, what it's supposed to do, or how to stop it...but how you spend your last day when the apocalypse rolls around.

Nah, there's no oversized, ominous prelude. The end of the world just happens, right as Mya (Anessa Ramsey) is sneaking back home after a night with her doe-eyed lover Ben (Justin Welborn). Things hadn't been all that great between Mya and her husband Lewis (A.J. Bowen) anyway, and when you toss in adulterous paranoia and a mind-warping signal...? There's bad, then there's worse, especially when a baseball bat crushes in some schlub's head a few feet away and another nutjob is chopping up anyone in the hall he can get his hands on with a pair of hedge clippers. Mya manages to claw her way out and heads towards the only beacon of hope, leaving two guys on her trail: Ben, who was smitten enough to want to leave Terminus behind and run away with her anyway...just under not so genocidal circumstances...and Lewis, whose obsessive overprotectiveness coupled with his ending hallucinations keep the body count steadily rising. They each bump into a few scattered survivors along the way, although it's the apocalypse, so...yeah. Pretty much everyone's earmarked for succumbing to the signal or winding up a dismembered corpse soaking in an inch-thick pool of blood. Or both.

I really dug The Signal. This is a real independent movie, and even without sprawling resumes or a multi-million dollar studio bankroll behind it, The Signal nails everything it sets out to do. It's incredibly intense: the mayhem and horror are so well-staged that The Signal is unnervingly suspenseful, and at the same time, a lot of that intensity draws from the fact that it's practically a character piece. Bringing out the best of its pretty damned strong cast, The Signal immediately cements the connection between Mya and Ben. It's not easy to start a movie off with an adulterous affair, sell what at the time looks like it might be kind of a lopsided romance, and then use what's established in that couple of minutes as a driving force for an entire film. Meanwhile, as deranged as Lewis is, he has no idea that his mind has been consumed by the signal. He's just trying to protect the woman he loves...or thinks he loves...and if he has to mash a few faces into hamburger with one of those hefty exterminator tanks along the way, then...well, them's the breaks. Lewis' mind is so warped that he sincerely believes he's doing the right thing, and that makes him a lot more compelling...likeable, even...than your garden variety, moustache-twirling badnik. That's not even getting into how hysterical The Signal can be. As intense as so much of the film is, its wit is razor-sharp -- particularly in the more satirical second act, set during a New Year's Eve shindig where half a happily married couple is brutally murdered before the first guest even shows up -- and The Signal holds up to the sorts of comparisons a couple of really great nods to Evil Dead 2 invites.

This is a movie with a hell of a lot of personality, slathering around barrel drums of splatter, a barrage of claustrophobic, unsettlingly disturbing sequences as the survivors' minds continue to melt, and a dark, dark sense of humor. The Signal juggles all of those different tones without missing a beat, and the fact that it never feels disjointed is even more remarkable considering that there are three directors on the bill, each taking the reins of one of the three interwoven 'transmissions' that make up the movie. Its directors -- Dan Bush, David Bruckner, and Jacob Gentry -- have the chops to make a movie shot on a shoestring in Atlanta look daunting in scope and impressively cinematic. There's no need to grade on a curve just because it's an independent flick. The Signal is swift and brutal, remarkably well-acted, and...I could keep going, but the short version is that it's just outstandingly well-made and a hell of a lot of fun. This movie quickly clawed its way onto my short list as one of the best under-the-radar flicks on Blu-ray, and especially for other horror-slash-sci-fi nuts seeking out something other than the usual megaton Hollywood stuff, The Signal comes very, very Highly Recommended.

Video: An independent movie in the truest sense, The Signal was shot on HDV, and I'm pretty sure that's a first for a movie scoring this wide a release on Blu-ray. Their gear is much more decked out than the high-def camcorders you can grab at Circuit City for $800 and change, of course, and it's a slick looking, professional production from start to finish. Still, a ten grand HDV camera on this sort of rough-and-tumble shoot isn't going to make for the sort of high-definition eye candy you'll get out of a multi-million dollar studio flick where hours had been spent meticulously lighting each and every shot.

Because The Signal was shot on such a shoestring, the 1.78:1, AVC-encoded image is a good bit softer and less detailed than usual for a Blu-ray release. It can get kinda noisy under low light too, leaving the video looking almost unstable when the post-coital meat of the movie first gets underway. Colors are deliberately sickly and dingy, but the photography makes a few colors really pop: the bright blues and pastels in Transmission 2 and Rod's green shirt, in particular. A handful of shots shrug off the lower budget and manage to leap off the screen -- the clarity inside Mya's car as she's hightailing it out of her blood-soaked apartment building, f'r instance -- but The Signal otherwise strikes me as a modest step-up over a well-mastered DVD.

Don't take any of that the wrong way, though. The Signal looks nice enough on Blu-ray, and its direct digital transfer means the movie looks about as perfect as it ever will. As long as you don't stroll in expecting Transformers or whatever the $120 million point of reference is these days, I don't think you'll walk away disappointed.

Audio: It's neat to see that even the indie set is grabbing onto lossless audio. Yup, The Signal sports a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, and although the movie's really lean budget does creep in, the sound design is still pretty solid. The broadcasts of the signal itself are backed by a hellish amount of bass, and even if the surrounds are used a little unevenly, they're really effective at ratcheting up the tension. The film's dialogue can sound kind of strained at times, but that's not all that surprising for a lower-budgeted flick.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 track has also been included along with subtitle streams in English (SDH) and Spanish.

Extras: The only high-def extras on this Blu-ray disc are a handful of trailers: The Life Before Her Eyes, The Host, District B13, and a quick plug for HDNet. For whatever reason, the trailer for The Signal itself isn't in high definition. All of the other extras are also in standard def, and for the most part, they're either 4x3 or in non-anamorphic widescreen.

First up on the long list of extras is the mind-warping signal itself, clocking in, eight hours and twenty-something minutes if the display on my player's right. Yeah, that'd drive me to mass-murder too, but it's still nice to see it included.

Each of The Signal's three transmissions was helmed by a different director, and for the movie's audio commentary, whoever was at the reins for each segment gets the boot while the other two filmmakers chat about it. It's a pretty unconventional way to approach a commentary track, but it's still a blast. They give a really strong impression what it's like to put together a movie on this scale with borderline-zero money and a breakneck thirteen day schedule, from the hiccups of not having a focus puller handy to a long list of the key shots that had to be stolen. The three directors marvel at each other's clever staging and cinematography, senses of humor, and just how much they were able to pull off in-camera. The steady stream of conversation never lets up: how to make a bustling metropolis like Atlanta look like a deserted wasteland, the ever-present threat of jaywalking crackhead zombies, an aluminum foil hat how-to guide, shooting a horror flick in a convention center while businessmen in overpriced suits were still shaking hands and puttering around... It's a great listen and worth setting aside a couple of hours to check out.

There are also two featurettes. "Signal Breakdown" (4 min.) is a quick run through the movie that's punctuated by a fistful of clips, touching on how Lewis may be slaughtering everyone in sight but...y'know, has his heart in the right place along with quipping about proper social etiquette even if you're knee-deep in the apocalypse. There's a bit of chatter about the ending as well. "Inside Terminus: The Making of The Signal" (15 min.) starts off by noting how the movie first got underway -- by putting together a brochure for the completely fictional city -- before easing into the production of the flick itself. A good bit of time is spent on how having three directors impacted the assembly of the story as well as the shoot itself, using their different styles to settle into a chat about the fine line between comedy and horror. "Inside Terminus" also takes a look at pulling off effects work on such a low-budget movie, including a detailed tour through a violent car wreck, hammering out a severed head, and smashing a face with goodies from the breakfast aisle at Harris Teeter.

The rest of the extras are all anchored around extra footage, and they're each accompanied by introductions by their directors. Up first are two sets of deleted scenes: a couple of very different takes on Clark and Ben swiping a kid's bike along with a longer lead-up to the baseball bat beatdown. All of this footage runs right at five minutes in total, with half of that going to the introductions. As part of the flick's online campaign, three additional transmissions were put together. Clocking in around four minutes a piece, they include a blood-spattered segment at a TV station when the signal first hits, the sort of lousy customer service at a big box electronics store that would've driven a guy to mass murder even if there weren't some mind-bending alien signal flooding the airwaves, and a cheery family road trip as the world starts to crumble apart. Finally, The Signal opens with footage nicked from The Hap Hapgood Story, a short hammered out in 2003 for the 48 Hour Film Project. The Signal condenses it down to just a couple of minutes, but the full ten minute version is included here, backed by a lengthy intro.

Conclusion: Nah, it's not some glossy, sparkling chunk of high definition eye candy, but The Signal is easily one of the best horror flicks on Blu-ray right now. The movie may be sneaking in under the radar, but the deft mix of unrelenting tension and a cacklingly skewed sense of humor, strong characterization, and the emotional wallop it packs make for an instant cult classic. Highly Recommended.

The usual image disclaimer: the photos scattered around this review are promotional stills and don't necessarily represent the presentation on this Blu-ray disc.
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