Though in plot it shows more devotion to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse and Hideo Nakata's Ringu, David Bruckner
, Dan Bush
's The Signal is, essentially, very American in its paranoia. Set against New Year's Eve in the fictitious city of Terminus, some pretty freaky stuff starts happening when every electrical device starts radiating a mysterious signal. Without warning, random people start lopping off heads, slitting and stabbing with garden shears, and plain old bludgeoning people to death for no apparent reason.
Shot on digital video in Atlanta for a (comparatively) paltry budget, this techno-thriller/horror hybrid isn't bashful in its hysteria. Besides the decapitated heads and sledged-in faces, we get drilled appendages, chemical burns, baseball-bat beatings, electrocution, and, at its most humorously grotesque, the business-end of an air pump to the neck. But as it turns out, these gory theatrics are for tapestry's sake: At the heart of all the mayhem is an old-fashioned love triangle between a husband, his wife, and the tattooed fellow she's sleeping with. Article continues below
It's when Ben (Justin Welborn
) awakens from a post-coital nap next to Mya (Anessa Ramsey
) that the titular signal first appears, interrupting a televised horror film that looks like a backyard remake of Wolf Creek (it's actually a short film by director Gentry). The effects of the pulsing signal aren't fully comprehended until Mya comes home to her husband Lewis (fitfully-creepy AJ Bowen
) and his buddies, hypnotized by the fluid palpitations that have interrupted the ballgame. A few minutes later, Lewis has bashed in one friend's head and Mya has escaped only to find her hallway filled with corpses and blood-splattered slaves to the oscillating noise. She makes her way out with her friend Rod (Sahr Ngaujah
), intent on meeting Ben at Terminal 13 and fleeing to the countryside.
Needlessly, the film is broken up into three separate transmissions to give the floor to each of the film's directors. Despite these framed interruptions, this cheap-o thrill-ride has a consistent tone and, ironically, rarely stoops to cheap-o scare tactics. This falters in the middle segment where Lewis drops in on Clark (Scott Poythress
) and some neighbors, unwavering in his belief that they know where Mya is. Focus is lost, leaving the tension partially disintegrated and the film almost spirals into buffoonery that wouldn't be out of place in Peter Jackson
's Dead Alive. These fatty tricks ultimately confound what is otherwise an engaging hybrid, but as horror films go, it's strikingly effective in its violent theatrics.
Though it precariously dangles between zombie picture and ghost-in-the-machine nightmare, the directors avoid easy mechanics and anchor all the freak-outs to the central drama. Visceral even in its subdued moments, The Signal is too aware of its structure to be considered anything but a commendable exercise. The scenarios and metaphors are relevant enough, however, to deem it a good start to the year in horror.