The Signal (2007)
Dir. and written by Jacob Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry
Starring Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngoujah, A. J. Bowen, Justin Welborn
A signal which drives people insane is transmitted through a TV broadcast, plunging the world into chaos in this episodic apocalypse. That’s a good premise, and directors Bruckner (the first section of V/H/S) Bush (uh...THE SIGNAL) and Gentry (something called LAST GOODBYE which apparently has Faye Dunnaway and David Carradine in it) up the ante by breaking the story of what happens to the various affected characters into three sections, each with a different director and a different tone.
It’s a fun concept, but it’s thankfully not too pronounced, because the basic idea here is fun enough to work on it’s own without some anthology gimmick to muddy the waters. Basically, Mya (Anessa Ramsey) returns from a tryst with her secret lover Ben (Justin Welborn) to find that the world has seemingly gone insane. People are acting violent and crazy, including (especially) her asshole husband Lewis (A. J. Bowen, YOU’RE NEXT, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL). People start getting brutally murdered pretty much right away. While this is not very faithful to the beloved Shel Silverstein poem “If the World was Crazy,” it does create some pretty good horror moments. But things get interesting because remember, only people who saw the broadcast are crazy, so there are also sane people running around who merely seem crazy because the world has turned upside-down. Is the guy with the dozens of knives duct-taped to a baseball bat crazy, or is this a perfectly sane reaction to a crazy world? It’s a fun dynamic, especially when you add the extra Catch-22 that if you have gone crazy, you’re not gonna know it. That guy battering someone to death with a fire extinguisher? It makes perfect sense to him, and he can calmly explain to you why the demons had to be driven out with a force of healing, and get annoyed that you don’t find that an acceptable explanation.
The first part (directed by Bruckner) is the most horror-driven, as it presents us with Mya’s perspective, stumbling upon the bloodbath of psychos and trying to figure out what to do. It’s strong enough on it’s own that it’s almost a shame that the whole movie isn’t like it; there’s a powerful sense of panic and chaos on a wide scale, even though the movie’s scope is quite limited when you stop to think about it. It’s one of the best depictions of the apocalypse I’ve seen, but the movie has other tricks up it’s sleeve, and that’s OK too. The second part (directed by Gentry) shifts to the perspective of jilted husband Lewis, clearly afflicted by “the crazy” but successfully convincing other afflicted people that both he and they are sane. While the film began with a fairly straightforward depiction, this section skews surreal, a prickly but darkly hilarious comedy of violent non-sequiturs, as the various insane people bounce off each other and try, futilely, to figure out what’s going on and what to do. Finally, the last section --and probably the least memorable, though perfectly competent--(directed by Bush) deals with Ben’s efforts to find the missing Mya. Since there’s no one else around, we can’t be sure if he’s afflicted or not, and the film offers some obligatory but enjoyable ambiguous metaphysical questions on it’s way to a final showdown.
|Baseball is way more intense in the apocalypse.|
The acting is pretty great across the board, way better than you can usually expect from something like this, but the movie’s secret weapon is A. J. Bowen as Lewis. I usually see the guy in nerdy loser roles, for example in YOU’RE NEXT, but he’s amazingly intimidating here, as a guy who was always an asshole but who now doesn’t have any pesky sanity to stand in the way of his more destructive side. Even so, as the segment told from his perspective makes clear, being a crazy killer isn’t easy. It’s a very complicated process of taking in some basic elements of reality and letting them percolate through a few layers of crazy before dripping out as a weird parody of rational thought. Since you don’t get to hear Lewis’ inner dialogue, you can only guess at whatever context must be in his head to have all this make sense. It’s a mordantly funny and deeply scary depiction of mental illness, and Bowen nails it.
While Bowen is the best part, the whole movie is pretty great. And that’s kinda remarkable considering the complexity of what they’re trying to pull off. On what must have been a minuscule budget*, the three directors create a scary, convincing world populated by interesting characters, which shifts significantly in tone not once but three times, while still feeling like a cohesive, satisfying work. You gotta hope this is a strong signal that these three guys are going on to bigger things, and not a sign that the world is going crazy.
*$50,000!! That’s not enough to cover the damn catered lunch on a Michael Bay movie!