All the rage: Cheri Christian, AJ Bowen and Scott Poythress take a scary look in surprisingly original "The Signal." (Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Review: "The Signal"

Dennis Harvey February 19, 2008

It’s an idea so vivid yet simple you’ve got to wonder why more movies haven’t used it: Something deliberate or accidental happens that indiscriminately turns the majority populace into irrational, violent maniacs. Zombie movies toy with the notion of familiar folks behaving in a most unfamiliar fashion; there have been a few more direct applications of the concept, like culty horror movies “The Crazies,” “Halloween III” and “Blue Sunshine.” But probably no film has ever deployed this conceit quite as cleverly or viscerally as “The Signal” — which would be mighty impressive even if it didn’t have the additional distinction of being created in sequential, exquisite-corpse style by three writer-directors, two of them making their feature debut.

It starts with Mya (Anessa Ramsey) and Ben (Justin Welborne) waking up in bed after a post-coital nap — too bad she has to spoil the mood by returning to her husband. An altercation in the parking lot is disturbing enough, but things really get weird when Mya gets home, where hubbie Lewis (AJ Bowen) seems to be in a really, really bad mood, to the misfortune of some houseguests and the alarm of his freshly cheating spouse.

Actually, a whole lot of people seem to be in a rageaholic way at present — it seems televisions, telephones and other devices are broadcasting some sort of “hypnotic frequency” that is creating mass psychosis — or, as one character puts it, “Anarchy has replaced etiquette!” Which may not sound that bad until you realize that just about every loved one, friend and random stranger will be coming at you with any lethal object they can get their hands on — and it’s very hard to separate the few remaining sane folk from the homicidal wackos, particularly since the “signal” fosters delusional thinking.

Directed by David Bruckner Dan Bush Jacob Gentry, its first third (titled “Transmission 1: Crazy in Love” on-screen) is all about panic. Its middle section (“The Jealousy Monster”) finds some protagonists hiding out at a different apartment building where Anna (Cheri Christian), husband Ken (Christopher Thomas) and landlord Clark (Scott Poythress) were planning to have a New Year’s Eve party. Needless to say, the festivities (eventually joined by a hilarious Chad McKnight as Jim) turn out to be rather unpleasant — though in a sharp, bracing tonal shift from the earlier proceedings, they play out as jet-black comedy. The final stretch finds survivors trying to “Escape from Terminus,” the grotesque central love triangle between Ben, Mya and Lewis lent a tragic gravity in this treatment.

Not for the squeamish, “The Signal” has an awfully vivid sense of bodily harm — more than one character here endures enough personal punishment for a whole horror movie. But for all the sticky stuff, this never feels like a simple exercise in gory mayhem. “The Signal” is consistently surprising, cleverly constructed (particularly in its use of flashbacks, sometimes even flashbacks-within-flashbacks), and acted with a deft combination of flamboyance and sincerity. While deliberately unalike in many respects, the three “chapters” mesh together surprisingly well as a whole, transcending mere gimmickry.

It seems there’s a new, derivative horror movie hitting the multiplexes every week these days, drawing the usual audiences who know exactly what to expect and like it that way. Here’s hoping they find their way to “The Signal,” which has something those movies don’t: Originality.