You don’t often see horror movies as scary, nor comedies as funny, as “The Signal.” Bearing an unfortunate (and apparently coincidental) resemblance to Stephen King’s novel “The Cell,” it might be dismissed as a clone, but make no mistake: The execution of the premise is wholly fresh and original.
It is New Year’s Eve and the city of Terminus is disrupted by a mysterious signal that’s being transmitted on all TVs, radios, and cell phones. This signal seems to burrow into people’s minds, filling them with fearful hallucinations and prompting them to lash out violently. In other words, the signal turns people into killers.
With the city in chaos, the streets filled with death and mayhem, a young man named Ben (Justin Welborn) wants to find his girlfriend, Mya (Anessa Ramsey), and flee to safety. Only trouble: She lives on the other side of town. With her husband. Who probably won’t want his wife running off with her lover while civilization is collapsing around them.
Mya, meanwhile, is contending with Lewis (A.J. Bowen), her loutish exterminator husband. He’s become infected by the signal, evidenced by what he did to his buddy’s skull with a baseball bat, and now Mya starts thinking leaving town with Ben is probably a good idea.
Ingeniously, the film is broken into three segments, each by a different director (David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry; that trio wrote the screenplay, too), and each with a different tone, style, and visual appearance. They all tell parts of the same story, covering events from other points of view and fleshing out the ensemble of characters.
Part 1 emphasizes terror, with scenes set in Mya’s apartment building that are as pants-wettingly frightening as anything you’ll see this year. Part 2 turns to dark comedy (though still with creepy chills and some explosive violence), as a New Year’s Eve party to have been hosted by a bland married couple is postponed when the hostess must kill the host, who had become infected and was trying to kill her. Now the wife, Anna (Cheri Christian), and Ken (Christopher Thomas), the lone guest to have arrived so far, have to deal with other survivors and refugees coming to call. Among them is the amusingly inept landlord (Scott Poythress) and even Lewis, who saw Mya’s car crashed outside the building and wants to know if she’s hiding in here.
Part 3 leads to some resolution for most of the characters, particularly Ben and Mya. It’s not as tense or funny as the other chapters; this is the gray, moody segment, and maybe it’s a little anti-climactic given how extraordinarily enjoyable the first two parts were.
Bruckner, Bush, and Gentry have devised a remarkably scary premise that works on two levels. First, for sheer visceral terror, you can’t beat ordinary humans going insane and beating the hell out of one another. They’re not mindless zombies or other attack creatures. They’re regular people who seem perfectly normal until they start acting out. The signal doesn’t make them behave irrationally. It scrambles their brains so that what they’re doing — which they’re perfectly conscious of — SEEMS rational to them. “It’s telling me what I should do, what I should want,” is how Lewis summarizes it during one of his more lucid moments.
Yet on a deeper level, the film is also a satire of our technology-based society, a comment on how (as cliché as this may be) our electronic devices have enormous influence over us. Think about how everyone jumps to see if a ringing cell phone is theirs, or how people arrange their schedules around certain TV shows, or how talk-radio listeners can be worked up into foamy rages by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The signal in “The Signal” is simply an exaggeration of the hold on our lives that technology already has.
With its expert mix of comedy, horror, and violence, “The Signal” might be the heir to the “Evil Dead” legacy, complete with a hero who fashions a truly awesome homemade weapon, the details of which I won’t spoil for you. The film is graphic without being torturous or distasteful, and funny without becoming so silly you can’t take it seriously anymore. It’s the best film of its kind to come out in ages, one that true horror fans can get behind.
A- (1 hr., 38 min.; )