So what'd you think? I hope several of you had a chance to follow along this weekend with our ongoing movie club series here at Horror Squad. This week's entry was The Signal, a low-budget apocalyptic affair that may have slipped past many of you. I hope you took the time to check it out as it has a lot of good things going for it.
I had only seen The Signal once, about a year and a half ago and my memory of it had sadly faded, so I watched it again today so that I could be prepared to discuss it with you guys. Now I'm not usually a note-taker during films. During a screening of Enter the Void at SXSW, however, I noticed some things I wanted to make sure I remembered afterward and I found myself reaching for a piece of paper and making a few notes. When I put The Signal in this afternoon, Weinberg suggested that I take some notes while I watched. I thought it was a good idea so I grabbed a sheet of paper, which, to my surprise, I ended up filling with my thoughts on the film.
Note: What follows are my thoughts on The Signal, including the ending. It is meant to spark discussion among those who have seen the film. If you haven't seen the film, you should go watch it before you read on. Otherwise, be aware that there will be spoilers.
The movie opens with a touch of grindhouse flair, using a short that director Jacob Gentry created for a 48-hour film festival. This exploitation film, playing on a TV in the background, sets a great tone for the rest of the film, which is augmented by the painted freeze frames introducing each new section. In the last few minutes of the film playing on TV, just before the picture switches completely to the brightly-colored swirls and screeching that make up the eponymous Signal, we see brief flashes of color and light, which appear almost like subliminal messages. While watching it, Scott opined that perhaps this film was like the last straw, tipping the scales on the increasingly violent media we consume over to the side of full blown evil and the signal itself was the response of our media pipelines, TV's, radios, cell phones etc. It's almost like the tools we've used to get our fix have gotten fed up with the content we're consuming and they've decided to fight back with a broadcast of their own. The film never really addresses the signal's origin, and Scott's idea is certainly an interesting take.
While the first scene sets the tone quite well, I'm more impressed by the second scene that sets up our two main characters, Ben and Mya. The exchange between the two of them establishes what kind of people they are and explains their relationship. Mya is married and Ben is the man on the side. They've been seeing each other for a decent amount of time, and as such they're comfortable around each other and willing to lay their feelings out on the table. Ben is the creative, artistic type. He's a dreamer with nothing tying him down, who still has that child-like innocence believing that anything is possible. Mya is careful and logical. She has commitments like her husband and her job that she can't just walk away from, no matter how much Ben wants her to leave with him.
Most of this is pretty obvious from the conversation they have, but I also think that Mya used to be like Ben. I think her forlorn looks and her staring out into space highlight the fact that she wishes should could still be like him, but she's gotten caught up with life and she can't just rip up the roots that she's laid down without ruining everything she has now. Obviously, part of her wants to run away, but part of her also wants to stick with the life she's making. She's spent a lot of time creating this life for herself, and if she were to pick up and leave it all behind, it would almost be like the time and work she put in was all for nothing. It's a hard reality to be faced with and neither decision is easy to make. Either way, someone's going to get hurt.
As I said in my introduction, The Signal is told in three parts, three "transmissions" as the film calls them, and each one has a secondary title. The three sections all have different feels and they're kind of different genres as well. The first section is "Transmission I: Crazy in Love," the most straightforward horror film of the three parts. It kicks things off with Mya in the parking garage, torn between wanting to help the homeless man who's been stabbed and being keenly aware that she's a single woman in an empty parking garage late at night. They start with this little bit of paranoia that's tertiary to the rage that will soon infect society, and build on it as Mya walks through her apartment building noticing a lot of people out in the hallways yelling at each other. Then there are the obvious suspicions that her husband, Lewis, has about her whereabouts that night which adds to the tension. Once Lewis kills his friend and everyone realizes the gravity of the situation, the paranoia proves itself as well deserved.
The conversation between Rod and Mya in the closet is a great way to explain that having "the crazy" is the type of thing where you see it in everyone else but can't see it yourself. The correlation between that and the concept of projecting, where people are hypersensitive to faults in other people while being blind to the fact that they themselves exhibit those same faults seems to be more than just coincidence. While the film can easily be taken at face value, I think the filmmakers are also throwing in a bit of subtext about love and relationships. It almost seems like love and happiness are the only defenses against the power that the signal wields over people. That's what I get from the fact that Mya seems immune when she's listening to the mix tape that Ben made for her.
It's interesting to note that despite the first part's serious, ominous tone, there's also a series of near misses between Ben and Mya, first when Rod pulls Mya into the closet and then again as Lewis throws Ben out into the road just as Mya drives away. This is usually an element you'd see in comedies or even rom-coms, more so than horror films, and I think that forms a great bridge into the middle section, "Transmission II – The Jealousy Monster."
The second part is a dark comedy that provides some great laughs. In fact, it's almost a screwball comedy, with doorbell gags, sight gags, mistaken identity and even some physical comedy all wrapped in death and blood. It is, quite frankly, a hilarious approach to an apocalyptic story. It introduces a character named Jim Parsons with a dirty 'stache and an even dirtier mouth who steals scenes left and right. This section also has the best kills of the entire film, utilizing weapons like a balloon pump, a shovel and an insecticide canister. AJ Bowen's Lewis really shines in this part, delivering some of the best lines and selling the comedic elements with his looks and facial expressions.
The final transmission, "Escape from Terminus" is where the wheels start falling off. Sadly, as great as the first two-thirds of the film is, this last section stumbles a bit. It's a bit longer than the other two parts and it does feel like it drags, grinding the pace down when it should be continuing to ramp up to a big finish. Instead, this dramatic romance with its mind-twisting scenes feels like an ambitious attempt at an intelligent, thoughtful ending that just doesn't quite work. It's a shame because the first two parts are so good, and you would have hoped for a really solid conclusion.
As it is, it doesn't ruin the film as a whole for me. I still think it's a solid film, particularly in light of its low-budget origins, and it's clear that they accomplished a lot for what they had. The acting is surprisingly good for a film with, at least at the time, a cast of relative unknowns, and that's apparent in what members of that cast have gone on to do. AJ Bowen, arguably the best part of the film, was cast in The House of the Devil and Hatchet 2, the adorable Anessa Ramsey starred in YellowBrickRoad which played this year's Slamdance Film Festival and Justin Welborn landed roles in The Final Destination and the new remake of The Crazies. But enough about what I thought, what did you guys think about The Signal? Respond in the comments section below and let's talk about what you liked and disliked.