It’s tricky to pull off the kind of cryptic mystery labyrinth that “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” attempts, and Jacob Gentry’s film only works to a point — whatever point at which the viewer decides this thriller’s elusive menace is just too vague to generate sufficient urgency or suspense. As long as the promise outweighs the frustrating lack of payoff, however, it’s an intriguing and atmospheric puzzle, with “Glee” star Harry Shum Jr. chasing down a possible link between the titular phenomenon and his wife’s disappearance. The SXSW-premiering feature will be a viable item for home format sales; theatrical prospects are slimmer.
James (Shum) is an AV tech geek in 1999 Chicago, working the graveyard shift in a basement archive, logging old TV broadcast videos for posterity. It’s a solitary job that complements the loner lifestyle he had since his dancer wife Hannah disappeared three years ago. Now, his sole regular human interaction is attending a support group for other people grieving long-missing loved ones. But one night a random news-program tape is interrupted by a strange figure speaking unintelligibly while wearing a plastic mask and wig, something very like the disturbing dreams he’s had of late.
He realizes this was one of two, possibly three such bizarre “broadcast intrusions” since 1987, which were investigated by the FCC and FBI without their perp ever being identified. James becomes obsessed with finding the supposed “Night Pirate” responsible for what another AV enthusiast calls the “creepiest unsolved mystery hack of all time” — particularly once he realizes they may be tied to the vanishing of several women, including Hannah.
One of the first people he tracks down in this quest is a media studies professor (Steven Pringle), who has met his like before, and cautions him against “falling down a rabbit hole you can’t climb out of.” Nonetheless, James pushes on, despite this pursuit’s escalating negative impact on his employment, mental health and physical safety.
Among fellow travelers met en route are a fellow retro-tech geek (Arif Yampolsky), a man apparently driven mad by this same wild goose chase (Michael B. Woods), and additional figures played by Chris Sullivan, Richard Cotovsky and Justin Welborn. He also gains a temporary collaborator in young transient Alice (Kelley Mack), though it’s one of many murky points in Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall’s script that we never figure out whether she or the sole other female character (played by Jennifer Jelsema) are actually connected to the central conspiracy or not.
The nature of that conspiracy remains a little too much of a mystery, with the fadeout simply obfuscating things further. “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” (which despite a slight conceptual overlap is unconnected to “The Signal,” the excellent three-part thriller Gentry co-directed in 2007) is best in its first half, when the Borges-like story holds the most potential. The “intrusions” (credited as “designed by Daniel Martin”) have an unsettling otherness reminiscent of David Lynch’s early shorts. There are amusing spoofs of mainstream TV programming, including a sci-fi sitcom called “Step-Bot.” The sunlight-deprived puzzle James lets himself get sucked into often takes place in literally subterranean places, adding to the atmospheric sense of a maze from which there may be no escape. Ben Lovett’s diverse original score encompasses both a giallo-type theme in a vintage Morricone mode and passages of trumpet-driven urban melancholy.
But all of this increasingly looks like smoke and mirrors as “Intrusion” goes on. It plants too many red herrings while remaining stubbornly opaque about just what the threat here actually is, whether serial-killer-hacker or something otherworldly. The sinister mood does not prove strong enough by itself to compensate for a shortage of eventual action or resolution, our emotional under-involvement heightened by the “Night Pirate’s” alleged victims mostly being kept at an abstract remove. Shum is charismatic enough, but as written, his role never really gains more definition than “generic angst-ridden hero.” The well-played supporting roles likewise feel like devices rather than characters.
“Broadcast Signal Intrusion” builds interest at first with teasing echoes of “Blow Out,” “Blow-Up,” “Videodrome,” ’70s paranoid thrillers like “The Parallax View,” and other mind-bending cult favorites. But those films took their slippery, obsessive, reality-clouding concepts to more rigorous ends. Whereas here we leave with the problematic, let-down sense of still chasing a cipher that one wonders if even the creators have any private explanation for.