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July 2008

The Signal

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll turn into a crazed lunatic

Some movies just seem destined to fail initially only to rise from the ashes as cult phoenixes. Indie sci-fi seems particularly doomed to this fate. Films like Donnie Darko and Primer are esoteric slow-burners that would’ve had to rely on the midnight movie circuit to find an audience 30 years ago. Thankfully, now we have DVDs: flat, shiny time capsules that allow these films to lie in wait for the devoted few who will study and celebrate their quirky brilliance.

The Signal is such a movie, though I’m not sure it’ll take very long to find its audience on DVD. Shot on HD video for $50,000 by a trio of friends in Atlanta, it got a rapturous reception at Sundance and sparked a bidding war that netted its makers over $2 million. But post-sale squabbles – particularly music licensing issues that prevented the use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as a leitmotif – killed its momentum. When it finally hit screens over a year later, the building buzz had all dried up and what could’ve been the next Blair Witch Project left theaters with a pathetic $200,000 haul, a fantastic annual salary for an investment banker’s secretary perhaps, but not a respectable gross for a nationally-released movie. No worries. Time heals all wounds, and DVD erases all memory of terrible box office. The Signal can now be enjoyed free of hype.

The film opens as the mysterious titular transmission suddenly interrupts all communication. Phones are dead, radio is a mess of distortion, TVs broadcast an amorphous pastel blob that seems oddly soothing and utterly unnerving at the same time. In the J-Horror-inspired first segment, Mya (Anessa Ramsey) is with Ben (Justin Welborn), a nice guy with whom she’s having an affair to escape from her psycho husband Lewis (AJ Bowen). Mya leaves Ben’s apartment despite his pleas and soon realizes what a mistake she’s made–the signal turns everyone who sees or hears it into strangely rational killers who coolly and calmly murder each other, and they’re beginning to fill the streets. The film then radically shifts tone with the darkly comic second segment, where Lewis crashes a Martha Stewart-esque hostess’s New Year’s Eve party that she refuses to cancel for something so pesky as the end of the world. The final Ben-centric chapter is heady, romantic sci-fi as he attempts to find Mya before the ever-crazier-than-usual Lewis does.

The episodic structure and ambiguous ending may turn off some viewers, but a more straightforward narrative would rob the film of everything that makes it stand out. The Aughties have been dominated by artful depictions of the end of human civilization from Battlestar Galactica to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but The Signal’s strange mix of horror, comedy and sentimentality gives it a tone unlike anything we’ve seen before. And the rights issues that nixed the inclusion of “Perfect Day” and kept the film out of theaters for so long end up helping it immeasurably (and not just because Trainspotting essentially bought the movie rights to the song 12 years ago with its famous overdose sequence); it’s hard to think of a more groan-worthy cliché in movies today than the ironic use of music, and if you’re going to play “Perfect Day” while an entire city of people brutally murders each other, you might as well go all the way and play “What A Wonderful World”. Instead, the filmmakers use Ola Podrida’s gorgeous cover of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, a heartfelt classic that taps into the film’s most moving material. It’s a perfect fit for a movie that chooses sincerity over the self-referential irony that plagues most modern horror. The impressive Blu-ray presentation only adds to the swelling paranoia. It probably won’t replace Planet Earth as your go-to demo disc (its entire production budget wouldn’t cover the catering expenses on Saw IV), but indie movies shot in HD gain a disturbing hyperrealism when the gloss of film is removed.

The Signal’s influences are easy to spot – there’s the TV zombie nihilism of Videodrome, the pitch black humor of Evil Dead II, the apocalyptic starkness of 28 Days Later – but it weaves them together to create a staggeringly unique film that gets under your skin and stays there.


  © copyright scott howard