As all of you know from frequently looking at my site, you’ll know that I recently watched The Bay, which featured a brief appearance by actor Justin Welborn. Although you might not recognize him by name, I think most of you horror freaks would recognize him if you saw him. I’ve seen him in over half a dozen films, from Dance of the Dead to The Crazies and even to the micro-budgeted Pelt. Despite seeing half a dozen of his movies, I will always think of him as “that guy from The Signal”. This isn’t to say anything about his performances in those movies, but since he definitely has his own distinct look, and since that’s the first I saw him in anything, I’m pretty sure that’s what he’ll always be. While thinking about this, I remembered that I hadn’t seen this movie since it was in theaters, and with Netflix having some sort of internet watch thing (or something), the film was easily available to me! You guys should check out this Netflix thing, you get to watch movies! Movies are the best! Fuck you, books!
This probably wouldn’t have happened had you gotten the 1080p!
Approaching New Year’s Eve, Mya (Anessa Ramsey) wakes up in bed with Ben (Justin Welborn), a man who isn’t her husband. In addition to seeing a strange broadcast coming from the TV, she also hears nothing but strange noises coming from any phone. When she gets back to her husband Lewis (AJ Bowen), he appears to have doubts about her whereabouts, and Mya sees his anger grow so strong that he attacks his friends with a baseball bat. It appears that this transmission coming through the TV is making people have strong, violent outbursts towards anyone in their path. The film follows the attempts of Mya trying to get to a train station to leave town with Ben, Lewis trying to find Mya but instead stumbling into someone’s New year’s Eve party, and Ben trying to find Mya to make sure she’s safe. The film is told in three separate segments or “transmissions” with a different filmmaker responsible for each section. The film ranges from suspenseful to lighthearted to romantic to comedic and back to violent while intertwining these three main characters’ lives. Because the narrative includes moments of hallucination and seeing things differently than they appear, there are a few sequences that jump from that narrative to that vision, so even though the stories all wrap up at the end, there’s enough ambiguity for the audience to fill in the gaps as they see fit for where these characters will all end up.
I was nervous that the headphones thing would be similar to that scene in Garden State where Natalie Portman is all “Oh it’s THE SHINS” but the filmmakers went a different direction. NICE WORK, GUYS!
Even though the elements of the story are things that we’ve seen before, there’s just something about the concept behind The Signal that felt, and still feels, fresh to the horror genre. We’ve seen movies about technological devices being involved in some sort of brainwashing scheme like in They Live, and we’ve also seen movies where people are going bonkers on one another without the assistance of a rage virus like in George Romero’s The Crazies. I think that one of the strengths of the story and whole theme of the movie is that at the time it was released, the market was saturated with zombies, so to have something that might resemble a zombie movie through trailers, and end up being completely different, made it feel unique at that time, even if some of the elements felt familiar. In addition to the overall narrative of the movie feeling like a breath of fresh air, the segmented story telling is something that made it stand out from most other contemporary horror films, but unfortunately, I think that might have been something that ultimately turned people off from it.
Now THIS is a guy I’d fucking party with!
The first segment was directed by David Bruckner, and was probably the most traditionally scary segment of the whole film. Along with all of the characters of the film, we are slowly introduced to the core concept of the movie, but there’s still enough mystery about why society is unraveling like this. The story focuses on Mya’s fear and paranoia, and the audience goes through the same exact emotions she’s going through. We also see a few instances of Ben just missing Mya by a few moments as she disappears into an apartment or drives off in a car, making the audience desperately groan for how close they were to one another. The second segment, focusing on Lewis, takes a drastic change in tone by turning into an absurdist black comedy, providing the audience with two characters having hallucinations juxtaposed with two characters seemingly trying to talk sense into them. I’ll admit that I was really confused and startled by this shift in the tone of the movie, that despite it being really funny (one character claims he will pee in a slut’s butt), I didn’t really know what I was watching. Despite it being a change in tone, the film eventually looped its way back towards the tone of the first segment, and also served as a shift of the story’s focus from Lewis over to Ben. I would like to point out that there were some pretty good gags in Gentry’s segment that were done practically, like having two characters in a medium shot, zooming in to one character’s face, and then zooming back to a medium and having one character replaced, that worked really well. The third segment, directed by Dan Bush, probably had the most difficult time tying everything together because it had to include and incorporate characters and thematic elements from both the comedic moments and aspects of terror, as well as give an ending that viewers could be satisfied with. I appreciated the vagueness of the explanation of why the events were unfolding in this way and there were still some terrifying moments, but the last section felt like it never really took advantage of the seeds that were planted in the first two segments. The final confrontation between Lewis and Ben seemed a little bit like a cop-out, but I think that by denying the audience some epic confrontation of the forces of good and evil grounded things at least a little bit more in reality. Although, I do think there were a few too many misdirects using the hallucinations that it made you second guess everything you were seeing, not knowing what was really happening and was in just going on in someone’s head.
From left to right: Kind of crazy, very crazy, looks crazy but is surprisingly sane. What a crime-fighting team!
Although both Anessa Ramsey and Justin Welborn have been in a bunch of genre films since the release of The Signal, AJ Bowen was really the standout performance of the whole thing. I remember walking out of the theater with my friend and we both commented that even though we’d never seen that guy before, he was a fucking madman. This isn’t a comment on him portraying a good villain, but rather is a comment on the intensity he brought to every single moment he was on-screen. In one scene, after he hits Ben with a baseball bat, you see him leading Ben to his van just by gently prodding him with the bat, the way you’d see an animal playing with its food. Then in a different scene, seeing the intensity he brings to the comedic moments of explaining to a woman why he murdered one of her party guests makes me regret that he didn’t have more comedic moments. The chemistry between all three actors was really good, but it’s really no surprise to see how Bowen has become a genre favorite over the past few years.
Pointing your duct tape knife contraption at the tied up woman probably won’t help to calm her down.
The strengths of The Signal far outweigh any sort of issues people might have with the disjointed and sometimes confusing narrative devices, but I personally don’t think those confusions take away from the enjoyment of the film. Again, it doesn’t surprise me that this movie was a huge blockbuster that made millions of dollars because it might have been a little too confusing for the public at large, but it’s easy to see how it’s become a favorite among the horror community. I can’t help but wonder whether or not this film can classify as an anthology film, considering each sequence had its own director and slightly different tones. I’d like to hear some opinions on that thought, because other than the fact that we have recurring characters and the segments are presented in chronological order, I feel as though each film could stand on its own. Either way, The Signal’s got some great performances, some interesting twists on concepts we’ve seen in other great films, and it’s great to see so many of the actors and filmmakers going on to do other cool projects in the horror genre.
Wolfman Moon Scale