Television isn’t merely a vast wasteland in “The Signal,” but a malevolent weapon that turns viewers into homicidal maniacs. Borrowing heavily from the current trend in zombie comedy and apocalyptic horror but shifting it away from the usual undead norms, pic carves out a fresh angle in the crowded indie horror universe while blatantly stealing ideas from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Pulse.” Hipster support nurtured by Sundance and South by Southwest screenings could carve out a path to good alt commercial prospects theatrically and in its natural venue on homevid.
The writer-director trio of David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush have split helming chores by way of the narrative’s three acts, cheekily titled “transmissions,” though there’s no detectable difference in style or tone among them (save perhaps second act’s somewhat more theatrical black comedy, directed by Gentry). In the end, the combo doesn’t detract from “The Signal’s” intent as an irreverent horror show, but neither does it triple the film-viewing rewards.
Pic at first appears to be a remake of an American International Pictures-style bloodfest from the ’70s, which then becomes the televised image on a bigscreen tube — suddenly interrupted by a barrage of multicolored interference. TV is in the bedroom where lovers Ben (Justin Welborn) and Mya (Anessa Ramsey) are having a tryst, with Ben pressing Mya to leave her marriage and run away with him.
His offer starts looking more appealing when Mya returns home to suspicious and jealous hubby Lewis (A.J. Bowen), who can tell that Mya is cheating. Signal interference also occurs on Lewis’ set, sending its owner on a killing spree. Soon, TV-watching neighbors are involved in a bloodbath, sprinkled with spouse-on-spouse axe murders.
Lewis is eventually caught and bound, but Mya and Lewis’ pal Rod (Sahr Ngaujah) realize the only safe exit is by fleeing the building. Rod soon goes mad himself, setting off some wild action, with pic coursing into second section set almost entirely in another apartment.
The script borrows its time-rewind device from films like “Pulp Fiction,” though it never feels intrinsic to the story. Midsection marks pic’s best mixture of laughs and gore, as Lewis comes into contact with apartment dweller Anna (Cheri Christian), who has just killed her husband (Christopher Thomas), and Anna’s landlord (Scott Poythress), who’s trying to figure out the best way to move forward on this very bad day.
Gripped by paranoia and jealousy, Lewis sees his wife everywhere he turns and demands to know where she is from these perfect strangers. Anna’s previous party plans inject just the right tone of domestic normalcy, cutting against the absurd violence to come, especially when Ben shows up.
Mya’s escape from town (dubbed Terminus) is picked up in the third section, though there’s a distinct sense that “The Signal” has already peaked. Thesps get seriously into the roles, rendering the situation that much funnier, with Ramsey working against the type of the innocent heroine, and Bowen going beyond the parameters of the husband scorned.
Filmmaking is pleasurably on the cheap, though digital vid image seems altogether the wrong look for a film that screams to be shot on celluloid.