The socially aware American horrors of the 70s and innovative spirit of J-horror join with the giddy nastiness of splatter flicks the world over to create the must-see American horror that so few have seen. With the genre better equipped and better loved than ever before, what distinguishes this indie underdog from its fellow American horrors?
>>> THE SIGNAL (2007, USA, 107′) Dir./Scr. David Bruckner/Dan Bush/Jacob Gentry – DP. Chris Campbell – Music. Ben Lovett – Edit. David Bruckner/Dan Bush/Jacob Gentry/Alexander A. Motlagh – Prod. Jacob Gentry/Alexander A. Motlagh
The horror genre has never been in such fine shape. Affordable, high-end digital cameras and editing software have made resources more affordable and the shooting and editing of professional-quality material much swifter. Producers along the entirety of the industry food chain continue to lust after the cheap bucks a well marketed horror film rakes-in; not least because of the relatively low cost of marketing them. The internet facilitates tremendous buzz and measurable word-of-mouth promotional power for even low-budget, debut features stocked with no-name victims. The focus of internet fan forums on genre cinema in particular is a boon to the likes of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007), THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) (2010), [●REC] (2007) and A SERBIAN FILM (2010). THE SIGNAL is one of many lovingly crafted horrors to have benefited from the modern condition of the genre but, indie credentials aside, it failed to become the sensational success expected in the wake of an excited reception at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
Shortly after midnight on 31st December all televisions, radios and telephones cease standard operation and begin to continually broadcast a single, chaotic, undecipherable audiovisual signal across America (possibly even worldwide). Those people that are exposed to the signal for long enough periods of time, which seem to vary depending on the suggestibility of one’s mind, experience an alteration in perception that creates delusional paranoia and violent reactions to the world around them. In the chaotic carnage that ensues, it becomes apparent that whether or not they are cold-eyed killing machines or panicking wrecks, people are attacking their friends and neighbours based on what they believe to be rational grounds. With everybody convinced that they are doing the right thing in the situation, the line between sane people and crazies soon blurs beyond recognition.
As the signal begins transmission, two lovers, Ben (Justin Welborn) and Mya (Anessa Ramsey), discuss the possibility of Mya leaving her husband, Lewis (A.J. Bowen), and the city to start a new life together. By the next morning both are rushing to find each other in a society already collapsed. Lewis is affected by the signal and hip to Ben and Mya’s affair. When Ben comes searching for Mya, he is captured by Lewis, whose own search for Mya leads him to the residence of Anna (Cheri Christian), a homely, pastel-clad lady, soldiering-on with her planned New Year’s Eve party, despite the fact that she has killed her husband.
The writer/director trio of Bruckner, Bush and Gentry divide their duties between the three acts of the film. The first act plays as a straightforward splatter and survival horror, as Mya and her neighbour, Rod (Sahr Ngaujah), attempt to establish a plan for remaining alive and sane as their neighbours tear each other apart inside the building and on the streets. Act two takes a distinctly more comic approach, centering around Anna’s futile attempt to maintain good hostessing skills whilst her landlord, Clark (Scott Poythress) and Lewis reign-in their panic around sleazy neighbour, Jim (Chad McKnight), the only person oblivious enough to turn-up for a New Year’s Eve party during the apocalypse. In the third act, once Ben crashes the party and the search for Mya resumes, the film enters the realm of the twisty psychological horror suggested by its premise.
Whilst it could easily prove jarring, the use of the three different styles and creative heads compliments the fractured nature of the world the characters inhabit and skillfully maintains an off-balance sense of foreboding and unpredictability, despite the film’s rhythmic, carefully measured progression. Cinematographer Chris Campbell maintains a strong visual coherence with his hand-held camera work, that judiciously avoids excessive use of the overwrought “shaky-cam” style that has become so overused in contemporary horror and action. But THE SIGNAL stands-out particularly as a rare example of a horror bound to its actors’ performances. Whether slipping through hallways slaked in blood or debating whether or not to kill the next person that walks in the front door, each character’s thought process and emotional conflict is laid bare by a script demanding of great nuance and flair from its performers. From the very start, each of the leads distinguishes themselves and their character, not least A.J. Bowen as Lewis, who one might suppose was borderline psychotic before the signal got inside his head.
When Mya returns home to find Lewis and his buddies trying to fix the TV to watch baseball the air between them could be cut with knife. Throughout the scene, the swinging of a baseball bat by their neighbour, Jerry, keeps the room on edge until Lewis finally snaps. Mya is clearly no longer safe in her own home but her foray into the hall outside immediately suggests that the signal’s pervasive influence is such that nowhere can now be considered safe, save possibly for the arms of lover-boy, Ben.
As the character’s odysseys through Terminus progress, THE SIGNAL delivers thrills, shocks, laughs and splashes of gore enough to mark it-out as a horror made by fans for fans. However the continued development of the symptoms of signal exposure and how people might resist them steer the film into altogether more stimulating and engaging territory. With theories ranging from terrorist attack to electronics malfunction, the common inference between all the characters is that wherever the signal has come from, it is something that has been laying just under the surface of possibility for some time; a threat that has always been and its product is the venting of violence that has always been inside the people.
Though it clearly owes much to George A. Romero’s work, THE SIGNAL’s strength as a horror operates in a different way from 20th Century America’s finely developed zombie heritage. The mindless, relentless pursuit of brains and flesh by the undead played to American fears of how easily society could crumble once morality and rationality vanish from the mind of the populace. The horror of what breaks loose in THE SIGNAL is a more 21st Century beast: a fear of the thin end of the wedge in a society where people’s rationality is distorted and different enough to be the very cause of the murderous intent exploding out of every door. The Signal was made at a time when divisions over the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the increasingly controversial behavior of the Bush administration continued relentlessly to cleave America’s populace into multiple factions, which have only continued in their baiting and taunting of each other. If your neighbours can learn to rationalize murdering you, what’s to stop them from really doing it? In the world unleashed by the transmission of the signal, the rationalization of murder is amplified to such an extent that it negates the moral repugnance of killing and joins with mankind’s root instincts of “fight” or “flight” in a country where “fight” is touted as a citizen’s best option, even in times of peace. Though the sci-fi element is the catalyst that drives the good people of Terminus to finally break-out the mega-shivs and gardening shears, Mya’s natural distrust for the people around her as she makes her way to her car or through the halls of her building is rooted in the realistic possibility that our neighbours are out for themselves and able to justify even the most elementary transgression or heinous crime.
Though the 3-way split focus of the film’s direction ultimately makes it easier to pigeon-hole as pure entertainment than social commentary, THE SIGNAL is none-the-less a rare example of a socially charged American horror in the 21st Century and its social slant is certainly a successful one, when considering what it is about the horrors depicted that resonates. It is not unreasonable to argue that, with the atmospheric social horror loaded mostly in the film’s first act, THE SIGNAL will not gain cult status through its critique of the American zeitgeist. But this is no reason to ignore what such commentary adds to the myriad strengths of an already remarkable film in a genre characterized by hack-work and the recycling of ideas.
Like science fiction and fantasy literature, horror cinema has been struggling against its detractors since it first emerged. The number of shlocky, poorly performed, exploitative horrors that line the shelves of a million video rental stores throughout the world overwhelmingly outnumber the great films to have come out of the genre. But, like sci-fi and fantasy, over time, a cannon of socially minded American horrors established themselves (particularly in the 1970s) to champion the tremendous intellectual potential of the genre. Terror never goes out of style. As movie budgets have grown and marketing budgets, too, horror has remained Hollywood’s perennial money maker. That said, the increase in the number of horrors produced in America has not necessarily coincided with a new era of resonant horrors entering the American consciousness. Despite its director’s insistence that HOSTEL (2005) is a response to the atrocities committed by the US military in Abu Ghraib, the film did not stimulate a social debate or demonstrate a socially conscious agenda (though cultural debate around HOSTEL’s “torture porn” status was plentiful). Even the re-emergence of the zombie genre has produced little in the way of topical debate. Romero’s recent additions to his zombie franchise brought nothing new to the table and AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD (2010) mini-series (based on Robert Kirkman’s exceptional comics) explored aspects of humanity’s response to crisis and despair that seem more timeless and universal than specifically of 21st Century America.
With American horror plagued by phoned-in performances, vacuous plot lines and an over reliance on special effects as much as ever, the fact that socially conscious horror seems no longer to be in vogue is disheartening. Films like THE SIGNAL, Sam Raimi’s slickly entertaining anti-greed fable DRAG ME TO HELL (2009) and Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s short story THE MIST (2007) stand-out not only for the quality of their direction and performances but for their willingness to engage viewers with potentially discomforting commentary on the nature of contemporary America and associate themselves with a distinct, less than rosy point in American history.
On seeing a late night screening at Sundance 2007, Quint of Ain’t It Cool News wrote “This movie is going to explode. Mark my words. It has cult classic written all over it.” Distributor Magnolia Pictures picked-up the film at Sundance and gave it a theatrical release in the United States, where it grossed $251,150 dollars over four weeks. Not bad for an independent feature, produced on a $50,000 budget with no known quantities behind the camera or in front of it, right? Magnolia Pictures, who chose the cautiously optimistic approach of starting the film in 160 theaters, presumably with the hope of expanding further, did not call that gross a success. With a per screen average of only $1,303 on its first weekend, expansion was off the agenda and the number of screens fell to 38 by the second weekend of release. Why did an innovative, smart, funny, gory, post-modern American horror, released into a post-Valentine’s day slump against no competing horror films fail to set the world on fire?
A lack of marketing would be an easy answer but in this case the marketing was present and reasonably financed. If Magnolia Pictures had had greater confidence in their merchandise, they could have thrown more cash into the campaign and established THE SIGNAL as another BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) success in the making – just add audience and stir. This distinction went to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY in the latter half of 2009, when it received its nationwide US release. Paramount Pictures’ unprecedented trust in a viral, audience driven marketing campaign kept PARANORMAL ACTIVITY afloat in the online community for more than 12 months, maintaining a freshness to a film that had first appeared at Screamfest in 2007.
Quint’s prediction that THE SIGNAL would achieve cult success was made during the Sundance festival of 2007, a whole year before the film finally made it to a general release. A 12 month delay, thanks to a lengthy search to find a song to replace an unlicensed cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” by Jon Thomas Hall, is an awfully long time to keep-up positive buzz for a film online. The very community that could have helped THE SIGNAL into the realms of a breakout success simply lost interest in a film that frustratingly failed to surface again for a year. Without the immediacy of the excitement generated by the Sundance screenings THE SIGNAL’s prospects were quick to deflate. Had the issue surrounding the soundtrack been resolved sooner, THE SIGNAL might have gone on to respectable receipts in its 160 theaters and beyond. As it stands, I feel it is a sadly ignored and underrated example of American horror at its most inventive and socially resonant. Despite arriving in theaters a year late, THE SIGNAL’s central terror of a populace divided against itself remained sharp during the dog fights between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, and between Republicans and Democrats in the run-up to the presidential elections of 2008. In 2011, with the Afghan war still on-going, the decay of The Tea Party and a populace resentful of its slide into economic turmoil, America still bears much of the internal frustration, confusion and anger that THE SIGNAL depicts boiling over and bursting onto the streets like infection being purged from a scabrous, shrieking boil.
··· NEXT UP: One man acts-out the homicidal madness we have all imagined whilst on the receiving-end of a know-it-all’s waffling arrogance in an unusual gem to bridge the gap between the old guard of Romanian satirists and the somewhat prematurely dubbed Romanian New Wave in NIKI & FLO (2003) …