One of the best movies from last October’s Screamfest Horror Film Festival in Hollywood, THE SIGNAL gets a well-deserved (albeit small) theatrical release this week. Although mis-identified as a zombie flick by some viewers, this is much more than a typical genre piece; it’s a sort of hip, almost punk, combination of drama, science-fiction and horror that has more in common with David Cronenberg’s RABID and Alex Cox’s REPO MAN than with George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The joint effort of three different writer-directors, the film offers a unique perspective on a familiar subject, using its limited resources to create a fascinating vision of a vaguely futuristic city gone stark raving mad. The genre’s de rigeuer violence and horror are there, but THE SIGNAL creeps you out mostly be getting under your skin, rather than by assaulting your eyes with atrocities.
Set in the fictional, vaguely futuristic city of Terminus, the plot follows a married woman and her lover, who are trying to avoid her husband after he views the “signal” that incites those who view it to commit acts of uncontrollable violence. This is harder than it sounds, because half the city has seen the signal, and the other half are so frightened and forced to fight for their lives so savagely that it is impossible to tell attackers and victims from each other.
Films as diverse as INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and 28 WEEKS LATER explore the consequences of a catalyst that destroys the personality of your friends, neighbors, family, lovers, turning them into something else, either an emotionless automatons or a rampaging killers. In these stories, the question always is: What separates the “normal” people from the “monsters”? Answers are not always forthcoming or clear. Romero even started to blur the moral distinctions between humans and zombies in DAY OF THE DEAD and LAND OF THE DEAD, but it was still visually clear who was alive and who was not.
What is unique about THE SIGNAL is that, more than any previous film, it blurs the vague line separating “us” from “them.” Perhaps the most horrifying moment occurs when one of the lead characters is paralyzed with fear at the bloody chaos on the streets, and has no way of knowing who has seen the signal and who has not: Is the person down the street beating someone to death because he has seen the signal or because he is defending himself from a someone who has seen the signal? This becomes a plot point with characters warily regarding each other, uncertain whom to trust, and the confusion grows even more, with characters crossing back and forth from one condition to the other.
The confusion is ably reflected the way the film unfold cinematically. Deliberately fragmented, the narrative defies genre expectations, turning in unexpected ways. The story is clearly divided into three chapters, each handled by one of the writer-directors, and the tonal shifts throw the viewer off-balance, moving from horror to black humor to drama, while groping for resolutions that do not rely on the usual apocalyptic conflagration.
The somewhat grungy visual style, no doubt necessitated by budgetary constraints, fills the film with a claustrophobic sense of restriction, of characters trapped in narrow lives with limited options, even before the storm hits. The dire hopelessness infects almost every frame, setting the viewer on edge with dreadful anticipation of what might be happening next. Yet the film, while never giving its leads a Horror Movie Exemption Pass, never succumbs to simply cynicism. It’s all about trying to hold onto something beautiful and worthwhile, however small and fragile, even while the world is going to Hell.
THE SIGNAL(2007). Written and directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry. Cast: Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Nguajah, A.J. Bowen, Matt Stanton, Suehhyla El-Attar, Justin Welbron, Cheri Christian, Scott Poythrress, Christopher Thomas, Lindsey Garrett, Chad McKnight.
VIDEO: Q&A with Cast and Crew at Screamfest
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