By Matt Singer
Three stories, three writer/directors, one movie. That’s the premise of the apocalyptic sci-fi triptych “The Signal,” a movie full of stuff that should feel like gimmicks but don’t. David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush tell three interconnected stories with one shared cast and manage to craft something that feels like a collaboration, but looks like a work of one vision, albeit one shared by three like-minded and very creative artists.
A strange, psychedelic transmission from every television, computer, and radio in the city of Terminus has turned half the population into primordial murderers and has sent the other half running for their lives. Once you stare at this “signal” for too long, it infects your mind and triggers massive hallucinations and homicidal mood swings. One of the survivors is Mya (Anessa Ramsey), who, in the film’s first segment, “Crazy in Love,” returns from an extramarital affair she’s having with a nice guy named Ben (Justin Welborn) shortly before people everywhere start freaking out. In the second piece, “The Jealousy Monster,” Mya’s jealous husband Lewis (AJ Bowden) follows her trail to an apartment complex where everyone has lost their mind but no one realizes it. And in the final portion, “Escape from Terminus,” Ben tries to track down Mya and ward off her murderous husband.
Though they tell a single narrative, each segment has its own tone and purpose. “Crazy in Love” is a very classic kind of world-goes-to-pot piece with gore and scares and people screaming things like, “One out of every two people just decided to kill each other!” while holding homemade weapons they’ve fashioned out of duct tape and kitchen utensils. “The Jealousy Monster” is a pitch black comedy that takes a different tact: Since those infected by the “signal” can’t comprehend that they’ve lost their minds, it proposes that an isolated group of lunatics wouldn’t realize they’ve all gone cuckoo. In it, a dinner party carries on as if nothing is wrong even as guest after guest gets savagely butchered. (Sample dialogue: “You killed Laura!” “She was coming straight at you with a knife!” “That was a keychain!”) “Escape from Terminus” resolves the Ben-Mya-Lewis love triangle, but couches its resolution in a warning about our society’s increasing preference for electronic interactivity over actual human interaction. It’s certainly a timely message. I’ll be honest, I spent the better part of today playing “Rock Band” instead of taking the guitar I own and starting a real one. And I’m strangely okay with that. Clearly, it’s already too late for me.
Bruckner, Gentry and Bush’s movie is scary and smart, and laden with clever low-fi filmmaking; ironically, a bunch of guys railing against technology are quite adept at using it in service of a story. “The Jealous Monster” in particular deploys all kinds of clever (and cheap) camera tricks in the service of giving the viewer the taste of what it’s like to have your perceptions corrupted by the “signal.” Even the multiple “gotcha!” endings work. Plus, these guys have a ready-made metaphors for the way their film works — it gets inside your skull and it takes control.
“The Signal” opens in limited release today.
[Photo: “The Signal,” Magnet Releasing, 2008]