The Signal

The Signal (2008)
Magnet Releasing
Cast: AJ Bowen, Anessa Ramsey, Justin Welborn
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, Short, Commentary

"The Signal" landed on my desk as an oddity of sorts. For starters I had heard nothing of the film until it arrived, and judging from the strange box cover I mistakenly assumed it was some sort of cheesy straight to video science fiction, of the type of films that come and go. And I don't have any recollection of the company 'Magnet' until recently. Luckily I missed two of their other 2008 features "Cocaine Cowboys 2" and "Donkey Punch". What can I say? Perhaps a copy of one of these may land on my desk one day.

But then I put this strange and disturbing film into the player, and I was surprised to find out it was something different than I had originally suspected; a dark and sometimes sickly comedic trip through hell and a commentary on our media obsessed culture and the propaganda and commercialism we are bombarded by on a daily basis, not to mention violent video games and films and the controversy that still swarms around certain releases, especially games like "Grand Theft Auto IV" and controversial films like "Natural Born Killers" and "A Clockwork Orange" that supposedly have a history of warping peoples minds and driving them to acts of brutality.

We live in a world where it is easy to get lost in between what is real and what is not, and the technology that holds us all together and has become more and more a part of our lives. We all use it for different reasons, some more than others. Still, what would happen if a signal could mysteriously be transmitted through all of our electronic devices, our cell phones, our televisions and our radios? What would happen if the signal turned us all into psychopathic bloodthirsty murderers in a split second? A disturbing concept, to say the least, especially if you let your imagination wander into the possibilities of using the media as a weapon of mass distortion. And when you really think it through, the film isn't as implausible as you may at first suspect.

Filmed in and around Atlanta, Georgia, "The Signal" is actually three separate 'transmissions', each with its own director. David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob gentry each film their own installment, in that order. Atlanta provides the backdrop for the fictional 'Terminus' and yet the story fits seamlessly together and uses the same actors and actresses. The film opens like a cheap 70's horror film, until we realize that this is simply a late night cable film being ignored by an adulterous couple, Ben (Justin Welborn) and Mya (Anessa Ramsey). Waking up late because of a bizarre and hallucinogenic pattern on the television (like white noise on acid), she is upset she will have to answer to her husband's suspicions, although Ben simply tries to get her to stay with him and leave her husband, especially when she can't get either one of their phones to work because of a disturbing and evil sounding tone.

After returning home, her insanely suspicious husband Lewis (AJ Bowen, in an excellent and disturbing performance) gives her a thorough interrogation she seems to be used to. She passes the test, but unfortunately his friend doesn't. While playfully swinging a baseball bat a little too close to her (and after being exposed to the signal during the baseball game) Lewis becomes psychotically offended and dementedly jealous, and ultimately he ends up bashing his friends brains in with the bat, to the shock of his other friend and guest Rod (Sahr NGuajah), who eventually duct tapes him to a chair to hold him at bay.

As it turns out it isn't just Lewis who has went off the deep end, it seems to be the whole city, and the hallways of the apartment complex are being wandered by one sick bastard who is actually killing people with gardening sheers, and Mya makes her way through the corpses to a new world, one with new rules, where bloodthirsty freaks are on the prowl and violence is rampant.

The second segment is brutally satirical and disturbing, it involves a dinner party where the hostess has killed her husband in an act of self-defense before the guests have arrived, including once again an utterly energetic and dead on performance by AJ Bowen as Lewis, who was probably completely demented before he watched the signal. This story has a lot of themes running underneath it, and is truly a sick and twisted work, and one that will make you nervous just watching, very effective. It also introduces a little insight into the way the signal activates jealousy receptors in some who become exposed to it, even creating hallucinations in the subjects about their spouses. Not to mention the fact that the hostess has killed her husband, and Mya basically left Lewis to die in the apartment, the film is filled with dysfunctional relationships, and underneath the actual horror of the film is a whole mess of psychologically messed up people clinging desperately to sick relationships. This installment also features a torture segment that is probably one of the most disturbing acts I've ever seen committed to film (actually this was filmed with video) and is art once an homage to "Reservoir Dogs". Perhaps a sly point is made about torturing at Guantanamo Bay, and the way this behavior is seemingly accepted in this new violent world we have lived in since 9/11, not to mention the fact that it is a man (Lewis) torturing a woman.

The third segment involves Mya's attempt to escape the hell that is Terminus.

This film certainly isn't to everyone's taste. It is brutally violent and the violence is truly quite hard to watch at times, it is an extreme vision rooted loosely in 70's exploitation horror films as much as it is in debt to screwball comedies, "The Signal" is a clever and subversive commentary on the role media plays in our lives and the way it can also be a hugely destructive force since we have allowed it to become such a 'monster'.

The world of "The Signal" is a nightmarish vision of paranoia that is certainly a reflection of the society we are becoming. "The Signal" is a Marshall McCluhan bloodbath, a twisted and surreal modern day fable that we haven't seen the likes of since perhaps David Cronenberg's "Videodrome", and the underlying theme is very important, since I don't think most people realize how much our world is actually shaped and utterly manipulated by the media. Because of the global village we now live in, where Breaking News is literally in our vest pocket, we have all also become unwitting participants as we take pictures with our cell phones of a fire or flood and submit them to an online news source under the all encompassing moniker 'iReporter'. Not to mention how distant we have all become as the news blows up stories of psychopaths and sex deviants that become a mere entertainment series to be watched every week for our own amusement. When you really think about it the world is in a constant state of panic (very much like the exaggerated world of chaos depicted in the film) because of the media, and it's enough to make you want to stock up on some extra duct tape in case of an emergency.

The film features a transfer that is based on elements that are fairly crude so as such it looks fairly grainy and is a little bit all over the place just as the filmmakers intended. This isn't a title that will wow you and it doesn't break new ground as far as the realm of home video is concerned, but this Blu-ray certainly captures the look and feel the filmmakers ended up with and therefore it is a fine transfer, the shocking nature of the film certainly makes one forget the limitations of the budget, and of course the independent and underfunded vibe of this ultraviolent film is what makes it rise above others in the genre anyway. In other words it looks kind of like "Twenty Eight Days Later" (actually better) because it was filmed with video, and it also has three different directors and is very experimental as far as the camera work and directing style. So while there is certainly a high level of clarity, this release is all over the place, and purposely so, and the budget limitations are also the reason the black levels aren't as inky as you may be accustomed to, instead offering several shades of grey at times. Like the film, the transfer is a bit erratic.

Featuring an excellent and immersive DTS HD Master Audio track, this film certainly has some excruciatingly sick and shocking sound effects, along with a very decent and effectively eerie score by Ben Lovett that never drowns out the dialogue. This is a very clear sounding track and the filmmakers certainly use audio to their advantage, featuring the strange and otherworldly sounds of the transmission along with some disturbing bone crunching sounds and eventually I realized that I wasn't really witnessing a lot of violence, I was hearing it. The filmmakers are talented enough, and limited on budget enough, to use sound to extract the fear from the audience, while at the same time making us use our imaginations while they put squishy brain matter and dull thuds of head crunching violence and bug spray eating away at the flesh sounds… you get the point. A disturbing array of sound effects on this one, all featured on a top of the line audio presentation.

The special features (all in standard definition) include a Commentary by all three directors which is certainly worth a listen as they describe the stress and creative limitations of trying to create a decent horror film with a small budget, it is interesting listening to all of the tricks they used to effectively get a reaction from the audience. A decent and entertaining track, not to be missed.

'The Hap Hapgood Story' is actually a short horror film in itself, used as the opening sequence. It is about nine minutes.

'Inside Terminus: The Making of the Signal' is quite interesting for a fifteen-minute making of. Unlike the overproduced and polished so called horror films they churn out these days that are usually remakes or thinly disguised rip-offs, this film took a lot of thought to create, especially since the budget was somewhere along the 60,000 dollar range, believe it or not. And this making of feature shows you how they used a lot of creativity to overcome their obstacles, and it is interesting to watch the filmmakers come up with good material even if the working conditions weren't ideal.

'Extras Transmissions' is about thirteen minutes and features the creative online promotion for the film.

Along with five minutes of 'Deleted Scenes' and 'The Signal Itself' (featuring the mind altering effect used in the film to portray "The Signal"), this is a very well put together presentation of the film, sure to please fans of the film. And for those who dislike the film, I'm sure they will have turned it off well before they get to these.

"The Signal" is certainly a pleasant surprise in that it is an intelligent and well crafted thriller, but also a shocking and truly memorable experience in its own right. Featuring a healthy dose of perceptive and insightful philosophy about media and relationships (not to mention a heavy dose of psychological layers to be examined), the film seems to have a lot going on underneath the brutal and blood drenched carnage that unfolds before us. Like some kind of post modern splatter fest, this film is sure to have a limited appeal, but for those of you looking to take the risk, "The Signal" delivers. Featuring an honest transfer that reveals the production limitations and a very solid audio track, along with a very healthy amount of special features that are insightful and well made, "The Signal" is evidence that you should never judge a movie by its cover, because the artwork made me think this was going to be some kind of straight to video Sci-Fi Channel reject, but turned out to be a real winner.