The Signal, late of Sundance 2007, began life with a real honey of a concept: three hungry young filmmakers pooling their talents to make a cinematic Exquisite Corpse, using a common group of actors to make an interconnected trilogy of short films that would go God only knows where. In the event, that's not exactly what Dave Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry ended up producing, but the concept they settled on was still pretty swell, a concept any three hungry young filmmakers would be proud to have stumbled upon: one giant science-fiction horror story told in three short chunks, each written and directed by one man lacking any knowledge of all but the basic outline of the other two.
Yessir, that's a pretty interesting idea for a movie - sort of like those old horror anthologies that B-movie producers used to let their fledgling directors cut their teeth on, only bent in service to telling a unified story. It's a pity that The Signal isn't a little bit better, to really do that concept justice. It's not a bad movie; it's not even "bad". But it's not at all good in the ways that you'd hope a film like this would have been good, and it suffers from a fate common to many anthology films, namely that each short is a marked step down in both quality and interest from the one preceding.
Taken together, the three sequences ("transmissions") tell the story of a mysterious experiment in the rundown city of Terminus, where late one night all the television channels stop broadcasting suddenly, replaced by a shifting moire of colors and shapes accompanied by an unusual buzzing sound. The responsible parties are wisely left unrevealed, but whoever they are, they have a pretty misanthropic view of urban development, for the effect of the signal is to turn anyone exposed to it into a thuggish killer, a condition quickly dubbed "the Crazy" by the survivors. In a neat twist on a familiar trope, having The Crazy doesn't just turn you into a homicidal maniac; it breaks down the parts of the brain responsible for logical thinking, leaving the victim susceptible to paranoia and suggestion to such a strong degree that beating the other guy to death seems, in most every case, the smart and measured course to take.
Our particular entrance into the world of Terminus and The Crazy is Mya Denton (Anessa Ramsey), a young woman with a crude husband Lewis (A.J. Bowen) and a hipsterish lover Ben (Justin Welborn). Bruckner's story - the first - introduces the idea of the Crazy and follows Mya almost exclusively as she runs from hiding place to hiding place, hoping to avoid death and her psychopathic husband. Bush's segment, the second, broadens its cast while narrowing its scope, taking place in one small apartment, and featuring the farcical attempts of Clark (Scott Poythress), a landlord, Anna (Cheri Christian) a hostess driven to old-fashioned craziness when her husband tried to strangle her, and a collection of others (including Lewis), all trying to quickly learn the most important survival skill of the new era: how to tell if you're crazy and how to tell if they're crazy. The third segment, by Gentry, is the most unexpectedly romantic, reuniting Mya and Ben and sending them to the mythic Terminal 13, a train line that is the only way out of Terminus.
Splitting the story into three distinct genres - respectively horror, comedy, and romance (though all three have epic amounts of blood and gore being tossed around) - is probably not an accident, and it's one of the most important things that The Signal gets right. But it's followed hard upon by one of the things that The Signal gets most terribly wrong, and the two largely cancel each other out. For a film assembled from three shorts films, each made by a different writer/director, there's a significant homogeneity of style. Bush's transmission is notably different than the other two, at least in terms of camera angles and the length of shots; this is mostly to do with the fact that it's essentially a comedy, with all the issues of timing that comedy implies. But Bruckner and Gentry, perhaps by accident, perhaps by design, shoot their segments in remarkable similar ways. This is, we can agree, a far cry from the project's Exquisite Corpse roots, where the whole point would be to see what the mashed-up styles resulted in. The Signal feels much more like a pair of filmmakers electing to marry their work as much as possible, to prove just how slickly impersonal they could be to the money men. I'm sure that's just my bias talking, and it depresses me right the fuck out.
Granted, the style works in the film's interests, more often than not. The first segment of the film - Bruckner's - is smashingly effective horror, with a unpolished look reminiscent of an 70's proto-slasher (a feeling reinforced by the bravura opening, a clip from Gentry's short "The Hap Hapgood Story", all but indistinguishable from a grind house era splatter flick); rattling, jumpy editing; and some unusually brutal violence. This needs some particular respect: for a couple of decades now, bloody violence in American horror has tended towards the outre (slasher films through to torture porn) or the sterile (the great bulk of PG-13 sub-horror we currently enjoy). The Signal is neither of these - there is much gore, but none of it presented in an imaginative or exhilarating way. Instead, it's just nasty and brutish, low-fi brutality that manifests its rawness in the frequent blood splashing up on the camera lens. The film is vicious, but it is the right kind of vicious for the story and the way it is being told.
Anyway, that's the first segment. The second and especially the third aren't so successful: the second largely for acting reasons - the plot requires several people to leave ambiguous for the audience whether they are going crazy from the signal, or because they're living in a world of barbarous killers, and this is done very well by all concerned. But the plot also requires the actors to sell some pretty loopy farce, which they are much less capable of bringing off, and it looks kind of like community theater. It's a rare sight to see a comedy where the director has mostly very good timing, and the actors don't, but thus is The Signal. As for the third segment, it's shot like the first, as I mentioned, but it's not horror in any meaningful way, and it tells the most perfunctory story, or at least it tells its story in the most perfunctory way.
For all that, I enjoyed the film, and the idea is really too clever not to toss some love its way. The film isn't for the ages, and it's barely effective enough in its current guise to work well as a topic of conversation for the cinephile's coffee klatch. But it's interesting at least, and that's better than being good any day. Though there's nothing wrong with being both.