A Fine Mess
By Jeannette Catsoulis
Dir. David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush
If Paddy Chayefsky and Newton Minow had ever bonded over too many cocktailsâ€”secretly spiked by Neil Postmanâ€”the result might have been The Signal, a grungy warning to anyone who would rather watch than engage.
Television, however, isnâ€™t the movieâ€™s only maleficent medium. The signal in questionâ€”a crackling hiss of static and snowâ€”beams with equally terrifying consequences from radios and cell phones, infecting its listeners with nonspecific, pathological rage. Exuberantly merging sci-fi, horror, and black comedy, three writer-directors each take responsibility for one third of the narrative; and if the outcome is more zealous than lucid thatâ€™s not to say the experiment lacks merit. Thereâ€™s nothing like the combination of low budget and high anxiety for liberating the id.
Set in a slab-grey city with the dystopic name of Terminus, this breathlessly ambitious bloodbath unfolds over the course of one particularly stressful New Yearâ€™s Eve. Sliced into three distinct segments, or â€śtransmissions,â€ť of wildly varying tension and creativity, the film is most effective at the outset as David Brucknerâ€™s aptly named â€śCrazy in Loveâ€ť kicks off. With only a few, bleak scenes of smoothly escalating tension, Bruckner firmly establishes his twin trajectories of volatile love triangle and impending apocalypseâ€”an impressive accomplishment when you consider his locations are limited to little more than a rumpled bed, a gloomy corridor, and a concrete parking garage.
While Mya (Anessa Ramsey) drives home to her loutish husband, Lewis (AJ Bowen)â€”leaving lover Ben (David Hyde-Pierce look-alike Justin Welborn) to twiddle exasperatedly with his remoteâ€”her path is strewn with random scenes of violence. Not especially perturbed (it is New Yearâ€™s Eve after all), Mya, sanity preserved by the headphones of her CD player, is slow to catch on even after Lewis and his buddies get to whacking each other: for all practical purposes, thereâ€™s no discernible difference between a husband made homicidal by technology and one who pretty much wants to kill you as a general principle.
Spousicide turns out to be a recurring theme in The Signal, where the only dependable relationship is one predicated on deception. Sliding into the second act, Jacob Gentryâ€™s â€śThe Jealousy Monster,â€ť the filmâ€™s nerve-twanging tone gives way to one of blackest humor as lover and husband cross paths at the home of a chirpily married couple (Cheri Christian and Christopher Thomas). Bemoaning the fact that â€śanarchy has replaced etiquette,â€ť their hosts take refuge in denial and the comfort of yuppie ritual even as their carpeting becomes increasingly blood-soaked. Tonally riskier and more performance-driven, Gentryâ€™s slapsticky segment is much tougher to pull off; yet even as it strains our tolerance for quirk and craziness, its director reveals an offbeat comic timing thatâ€™s surprisingly endearing.
By the time we reach the final act, Dan Bushâ€™s â€śEscape from Terminus,â€ť the filmâ€™s splatter count has risen along with its sense of desperation. Bush makes a valiant attempt to restore tension and narrative coherence, but according to the press notes was forced to jettison his original screenplay when Bruckner made drastic, last-minute changes to the first act. Tasked with resolving a radically altered story, he resorts to power tools and dismembermentâ€”all fun stuff, of course, but nowhere near as troubling as the carefully nurtured paranoia of the filmâ€™s early scenes.
Originally conceived as an experimental film project called Exquisite Corpseâ€”in which a series of filmmakers would pass the narrative batonâ€”The Signal is a slaphappy, low-rent hybrid of 70s exploitation and new-millennium zombie. Charging along with more enthusiasm than finesse, its makers have willingly renounced logic (the signal seems equally likely to induce catatonia as hyperthyroidal rage) in favor of self-gratification. But then again, who hasnâ€™t?