In some Atlanta-like city called Terminus (the film’s original title), a signal has been sent out over phones, televisions, and radios that turns citizens into raging zombies, er, killers. Starstruck lovers Mya (Anessa Ramsey) and Ben (Justin Welborn) are separated just as this epidemic erupts. The two then move about the city trying to find each other again. Besides the random kill crazy signalite, they have to contend with Lewis (A.J. Bowen), Mya's unbalanced (on good days) husband and a man currently under the powers of the signal.
There’s been quite a lot of buzz on the net about this indie horror flick from Atlanta, Georgia with a plot that sounds kind of like Stephen King’s Cell or M. Night’s The Happening only the film doesn’t really bother with the concept at all. It’s just an excuse to hang three short films of varying quality together. The film does not (and probably could not-due to budgetary restrictions) really deal with the widespread madness and panic that would take over any metropolitan locale where mass numbers of people are enclosed within a small area. As it stands, however, the film is both an impressive “calling card” work for the filmmakers and a failure as an actual film.
The Signal opens brilliantly as what appears to be a grainy grindhouse horror film. This is interrupted by the swirling images and high pitched noise of “the signal” like the opening credits of the classic Doctor Who series. Watching this on his TV is Ben and we’re off into the first segment or “transmission” as they call it, here titled, “Crazy in Love”.
The opening 20 minutes or so are the best of the whole movie. “Crazy in Love” directed by David Bruckner sets an unnerving tone, similiar to Phillip Kaufman’s excellent remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland. There is a sense of creeping dread all around Mya as she makes her way back to her apartment building. Strange people staring at her, following her with sinister intent while the strange noise emitted by all communication devices cuts her off from the world. It’s a spooky, apocalyptic tone that seems to promise a film about as coldly commanding as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse but for some reason, the filmmakers have decided not to go this route for the rest of the way.
Having set up and promised one kind of film, the second transmission starts and immediately we can see that it’s some kind of comedy. The problem is that there is nothing at all “wrong” with Jacob Gentry’s second transmission “The Jealosy Monster” as a stand alone film. It’s witty, clever, well acted with some precision timing from the cast and, in fact, may be the most creative of the three stories. It just absolutely sucks the life out of the movie we were expecting to see. Which is a kind of Godard joke on the audience and in that respect it’s brilliant. But I would wager that most folks renting this DVD would have a horror film in mind and after a classic set up to something John Carpenter would’ve been proud to have made, The Signal slips into a John Waters or Shaun of the Dead kind of mode.
Gentry is a talented director with a pretty original style. If he were to make a feature film like this all the way through, it could be a real cult classic. As it is, the tonal shift is so very bizarre that all emotional investment in the story is lost. Characters from the first story play a large part in this one too and have to do a kind of acting exercise in which they exhibit similiar characteristics within a whole different cinematic world. That they are even slightly successful is a surprise.
The third transmission, “Escape from Terminus” directed by Dan Bush, sets the tone back to something more straightforward, but it’s the most negligible of the three, attempting to mix existential dread with weird humor in a whiplash inducing manner. Here we return to the story of Ben trying to find Mya and save her from the horrors of the signal. But the episode doesn’t make us care at all about his mission or the couple’s happiness. The film itself has been so clumsily assembled that the feeling that something grand will end the film is quickly lost amid a very anticlimactic climax and a disappointing roll of the credits. Yes, that’s all there is, folks. The illusion of a feature film.
It’s unfortunate that they didn’t try and smooth out the edges a little. The idea of telling the story through three short films may have actually worked had they been shot by a single director. After all, most of Quentin Tarantino’s films and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City are really just old fashioned anthology films in disguise. Pulp Fiction’s screenplay opens with the statement that it’s “three stories...about one story.” The difference is that all three of those stories are the work of a singular and very authoritative creator who was able to make the parts equal one stylish and tonally cohesive sum. This is not the case with the three-headed dragon at the helm of The Signal. Here, the head wants to go one way while the tail is thrashing to go the other.
This DVD will be of most interest to indie filmmakers curious to see how this trio got their film made and sold at Sundance for a tidy sum. Luckily, the filmmakers are game and have put together a DVD package designed for that particular audience.
There are two “behind the scenes” features, “Signal Breakdown” and “Inside Terminus: The Making of The Signal”. “Breakdown” is the standard press kit feature with a bunch of talking heads telling us how cool it was to work on the film and the challenges of working with three directors. The second feature, “Inside Terminus” is much better. It’s a look at the making of the film with a special attention placed on how the filmmakers achieved so much with so little. In particular, the filmmakers demonstrate how they staged a cheap car crash and used old fashioned sleight of hand to chop off a head. The old ways still work effectively.
There are three much shorter transmissions included that were promotional webisodes designed to show what else was going on in the city while the main story was unfolding. The best features an attack of the signal inside a Best Buy type store filled with electronic devices.
There are deleted scenes, the best of which involves a young boy on a bike jousting towards our heroes with a broomstick, a surreal scene that was deemed too bizarre for the tone. Several trailers are included for The Signal itself and upcoming Magnolia and HDNET releases.
The best extras are the directors’ commentary and Jacob Gentry’s The Hap Hapgood Story, a short film made for the never ending 48-hour film festival which ended up as the opening scene of The Signal. It’s shown here in it’s 10 minute entirety, without a score and without the major color correction done in post as it appears in the feature. It’s a great example of how much the original footage is manipulated in the post production process to give HD video a more cinematic look.
The directors’ commentary is excellent, covering the production from conception to realisation and pointing out the film’s technical flaws throughout. The filmmakers do something different in the commentary by banishing each segment’s actual director while their segment unfolds. All three directors were present for ALL of the shooting so nothing is lost but it saves each director the embarrassment of sounding full of himself. At least, that’s the idea. I found it ok, but still prefer hearing about the intentions and reactions from the filmmaker himself.
Finally, for those of you with more masochistic tendencies, the DVD includes the actual “signal” itself to entertain you and your friends at some future party. It’s extremely annoying to look at and may actually have powers to drive you insane. I watched it for just a few seconds and could not control my rage afterwards.