Day 3 of my horror-a-thon, and, believe it or not, I’ve had a list of movies that I’m pulling from (with the odd substitution here and there – sorry Die Bienen, I don’t think I’m ever going to get to find you anywhere). I was going to give myself a break and watch something more light-hearted, but I
was too lazy to open couldn’t figure out how to set up the HDMI cable so I could watch from my computer. Yesterday’s movie was bleaker than I’d thought; tonight’s movie, despite lashings (literally) of black humour during the second act, wasn’t quite the “soft” movie I’d been hoping would break up a couple of days of grim flicks.
Made in 2007 (shot in less than 2 weeks and on a $50,000 budget), The Signal was released in 2008 after the filmmakers needed to find a song to replace an unlicensed cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” (they settled on a Joy Division cover instead). The film’s plot is simple – a signal, transmitted via phone, radio, and television, is inexplicably turning people into psychopaths. Not mindless zombies, (not even semi-mindless like the tool-wielding ones in The Crazies) but rational, resourceful, conversational psychos who genuinely believe they should be killing the people they’re killing. No other crimes – no theft, rape, jaywalking, white-collar crime; just murder. Set in the (I believe, fictional) city of Terminus, the film revolves mainly around Mya (Anessa Ramsey), her husband Lewis (A. J. Bowden), and her boyfriend Ben (Justin Welborn).
The movie is told in three parts (“Transmissions”), all directed by a different director, and gradually soften in tone. While most of the en-masse violence is in the first Transmission (including the horrific, tawdry movie-within-a-movie torture porn played at the beginning of the movie), there are plenty of moments that you’ll want to watch through your fingers, which begs the question as to how on earth such sickening disfigurations could look so realistic on such a meagre budget (yesterday’s Stake Land cost a comparatively whopping $4 million). The extremely black comedy in Transmission 2 is surprisingly well-balanced, drawing the right amount of nervousness from me and my other half as I thought, “I’ll just laugh quickly because I know something screwed-up is going to happen”. The third act is the most baffling, as the film draws to a mind-bending, but satisfactory conclusion.
Stitching the Transmissions together are some bare-bones title cards and some oddly-designed “exploitation-style” freeze-frames (high-contrast, black-silhouette-on-color filters). Despite the change in tone and directors, the film never feels episodic, as we follow the same characters, but different perspectives, so the narrative and themes remain intact.
With a tiny budget, it’s important that a movie like this has believable characters played by people who can act well. Luckily, that’s the case! From the beginning, Mya makes some seemingly poor decisions (such as walking around a hallway of murdered corpses with earphones blasting in her ears, or not grabbing a weapon or two to arm herself with). And, with her first scene portraying her as an adulterer, she could have been instantly unsympathetic. Credit should go to Ramsey’s believable performance, but her characterisation, paired with Lewis’ controlling, abusive characterisation, illustrates how afraid, careless, meek, and, yes, stupid – she is (and that sometimes those qualities don’t go away in a potential societal apocalypse). As for Lewis, Bowden infuses him with a very compelling, paranoid, menacing presence. A standout for me was Anna (Cheri Christian), an adorable housewife who takes a minute to adjust to what’s going on around her; she’s just the kind of sweet, innocent, quirky character you’d instinctively root for in a movie like this.
The movie is a mindfuck from start to finish, paired well with the overlying theme that the Signal is really screwing with people’s minds and distorting – nay, mutating – their sense of reality (but thankfully, the script restrains this from becoming any sort of a trolling plot device). I don’t think I’ve asked a movie, or myself, or my other half (who loved it) as many questions as I did while watching this movie (and out loud); it was that unpredictable. A gritty, post-apocalyptic tale that with heaps of plausibility, it’s a movie that you might need to follow up with something light-hearted, afterwards. I’m probably going to binge-watch a few episodes of Black Books or The IT Crowd.