Signal, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

To say that The Signal has major tone problems is to understate the problem. While it's possible for a movie to function simultaneously as a horror movie and a parody of the genre, it's not the easiest trick to pull off and first-time feature directors David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush miss the mark badly. The film's wild swings from atmospheric apocalypse to ultra-gory horror to boldfaced camp to outright comedy are both dizzying and off-putting. It doesn't take long for the The Signal's promising beginning to fade into a haze that leaves the viewer exhausted and irritated. And the sense that events are building to a big "reveal" results in a letdown when the film ends conventionally without fulfilling the implicit promise.

The Signal opens in the apartment of Ben (Justin Welborn). It's late at night and he is in bed with his married lover, Mya (Anessa Ramsey). Ben is awakened when the TV turns itself on. On the screen is a strange, hypnotic pattern. Mya awakens and realizes that it's late and she has to call her husband, but her cell phone isn't working. She rushes home to find her spouse, Lewis (AJ Bowen), and his friends hanging out in her apartment. They're joking around but there's an undercurrent of tension. Something is not right. Lewis is suspicious of Mya's story about being out late at a bar with her friends. Meanwhile, the strange pattern that appeared on Ben's TV shows on the set Lewis and his friends are watching. An argument breaks out and Lewis uses a baseball bat to pulverize the head of one of the other men. Horrified by the violence, Mya flees - only to discover that an insanity has gripped not only the apartment building but the city of Terminus. People have gone mad and are killing one another, often brutally, apparently at the instigation of whatever signal is emanating from televisions and other electronic devices.

If The Signal offers a message, it's that television rots the brain, as anyone who watches American Idol will testify. This theme, however, is quickly lost in the general muddle that the movie becomes. The signal is downgraded from the prime motivator to a pointless plot device - a means by which the general mayhem can be provoked. A secondary character provides a nonsensical explanation but his words are gibberish. Nevertheless, there's a sense that this man, named Clark, knows more than he's saying. The directors tease us with possibilities about the signal. In the end, however, they're like the virginal prom queen and don't put out.

The Signal is explicitly divided into three acts (each one presumably written and directed by one of the trio responsible for the movie). The first p art ("Crazy Love"), which focuses on Mya, is straightforward low-budget horror. It's generic and badly acted, but those things are not unexpected in movies of this sort. On the plus side, there are some legitimately creepy moments and an inescapable sense of paranoia. Horror aficionados have felt this before - it's a staple of the genre. However, instead of building on a solid beginning, the movie slides onto thin ice by taking a turn into the absurd. Act II ("The Jealousy Monster") crashes and burns as The Signal transforms from horror to comedy. It's as if Shaun of the Dead had started with 30 minutes of serious zombie action before starting to crack jokes. Lewis is the main character for this segment and the action follows him on his homicidal rampage, wink-winking and nudge-nudging all the way. Gone is the atmosphere. Gone is the pervasive gloom. Act III ("Escape from Terminus"), which trails the heroic Ben in his struggle to reunite with Mya, is a hybrid of serious horror and offbeat parody and, as a result of the stylistic conflict, is the least effective of the three episodes. The tone shifts every few minutes, threatening to give audience members whiplash. The resolution is limp, anti-climactic, and a little confusing. It's hard to imagine anyone being satisfied with what happens to any of the characters when the end credits start rolling.

One is tempted to give the writing/directing trio props for at least trying something unusual, but the experiment is such a spectacular failure that the best I can do is commend them for the effort while condemning the result. It takes a deft hand to combine these disparate elements into a workable whole, and the list of failures like The Signal is a lot longer than the list of successes. There is undoubtedly a cadre of adherents who will extol the movie's virtues. Such is that case with any bold cinematic endeavor. The fact is, however, that boldness does not equate to effectiveness. I do not debate that The Signal is audacious and that it defies conventions. But when the result frustrates and dissatisfies because of a failure to integrating its multiple personalities into a single identity, what value do such characteristics have?

Signal, The (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1