A funny thing happened to me on my way to straight-to-video hell the other day -- I found a flick I actually enjoyed. Shot in thirteen days on a shoestring budget of a mere $50,000, ‘The Signal’ certainly didn’t look promising. While its Sundance premiere was respectable enough to catch the attention of Magnolia Pictures, the film was only released in a handful of theaters, failed to wow the few critics who turned out, and didn’t nab much buzz outside of genre publications like Fangoria. Honestly, after slugging my way through low-budget junk like ‘The Last Sentinel,’ I wasn’t excited to review this one at all. I suppose that’ll teach me to judge the proverbial Blu-ray by its poorly designed cover art. ‘The Signal’ may not be a revolutionary reinvention of the horror genre or a flawless cinematic experience, but it is a solid piece of filmmaking that kept my eyes locked on the screen from start to finish.
Fractured into three separate “Transmissions” helmed by a trio of young directors, the film opens as televisions, cell phones, and radios simultaneously begin to broadcast a bizarre signal that commandeers the airwaves. As the anomaly spreads across the city of Terminus, a woman named Mya (Anessa Ramsey) kisses her lover (Justin Welborn) goodbye and returns home to her husband, an exterminator named Lewis (AJ Bowen). When she arrives, her building is filled with the sounds of arguing and strange noises, sending her scurrying to her apartment in fear. However, even Lewis is growing increasingly anxious and paranoid, barking at his friends and accusing them of threatening her safety. When he kills one with a baseball bat, Mya runs and encounters a nightmarish hallway filled with bloody bodies and glass-eyed madmen. In the aftermath, Mya tries to escape the city, Lewis works to track her down, and her lover fights to save them both from Terminus’ insanity.
Taking its cues from ’28 Days Later,’ Stephen King’s “Cell,” and ‘Shaun of the Dead’ of all things, ‘The Signal’ strikes an interesting (albeit disjointed) balance between drama, comedy, and horror. The first segment is dominated by atmosphere and chills, unfolding methodically with intense encounters and desperate decisions. The second segment immediately shifts gears and adds some unyielding dark humor into the mix. It may seem like an odd transition, but since this stretch of film focuses on characters who have been altered by the transmission, it makes such a jarring, farcical shift more digestible. Finally, the third segment combines both tones, delivering a satisfyingly ambiguous ending that deals with the psychological complexities of the signal’s effects. Admittedly, ‘The Signal’ almost lost me when it abruptly shifted from horror to comedy, but as soon as I adjusted to the changeover, I was once again engrossed by Terminus’ eclectic characters.
It doesn’t hurt that the actors (most of whom are making their feature film debuts) are shockingly well cast in their respective roles. Ramsey is a tormented everywoman who handles the transmission and its ensuing chaos realistically without succumbing to standard horror clichés. Welborn does a fantastic job playing a rather brooding anti-hero, offering a deft portrayal of a man fighting the pressures of his own insanity. More than any other character, he provides the film’s lone glimpses into the true nature of the transmission without bogging the plot down with exposition. Last but certainly not least, Bowen walks a fine line between villainy, comic relief, and sadism. He manages to present Lewis as an empathetic victim of circumstance, despite the fact that he spends the majority of the film killing innocents.
Of course, like any film of its size, ‘The Signal’ is far from perfect -- some of the supporting actors are decidedly low-rent, the locations and sets are sparse and underdeveloped, and the entire flick is at the behest of its limited budget. However, I was thoroughly impressed with how good the cinematography, special effects, and gore still looked in spite of a price tag that would sink most homebrewed productions. As it stands, I’m genuinely excited to see what directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry come up with next. With more cash and fewer boundaries, this trio of top-notch storytellers should be able to finally earn the attention they deserve.
’The Signal’ features a competent 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that does a decent job handling a variety of gloomy interiors and heavy shadows. Colors have been intentionally robbed of deep reds, but the resultant palette doesn’t suffer from the abundance of blue and brown tones left in their place. Skintones look fairly natural, blacks are inky, and contrast is spot-on for a film drenched in murky set design and lighting. While there is a bit of crushing and noise in the darkest shots, there isn’t any significant artifacting, edge enhancement, or DNR. Detail is also impressive, especially when considering the film’s meager budget -- the film’s textures and edges may not be as sharp as those in the most expensive flicks on the market, but close-ups and exterior shots are quite crisp and three dimensional. Better still, ‘The Signal’s HDV source generates the same rickshaw atmosphere as the SD DV-captured footage in ’28 Days Later’ without falling prey to that film’s pesky resolution and clarity issues.
Unfortunately, while such individual issues are relatively minor, they conspire to produce an inconsistent presentation. Some shots look fantastic while others are at the mercy of errant softness and fuzzy backgrounds. A few scenes will get your head nodding while others will probably make you wonder what happened to the high-quality visuals. All in all, ‘The Signal’ looks a lot better than I expected, outclasses its standard DVD counterpart in every regard, and surpasses the visual quality of other low-budget flicks I’ve reviewed on the format. It by no means boasts a standout transfer, but it does deliver an above-average presentation that should sit well with fans of the film.
Thankfully, ‘The Signal’ rebounds from its inconsistent visuals with a rich and resonant DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. My skin crawled every time the camera focused on the haunting transmission -- bottomless LFE pulses stirred the hair on the back of my neck and aggressive rear support spread the vile noise throughout my home theater. It wasn’t just the signal itself that impressed either. The empty streets are brimming with ambient pandemonium, interiors sport believable acoustics, and clean channel pans help enhance more than a few scares throughout the film. Horror junkies will also be pleased with the wet shloops and dull thuds that permeate every unsettling, gore-tastic image committed to the screen. The makeup and practical effects may look good, but they sound even better. A subtle sizzle of flesh made a spray of insecticide particularly painful, a thundering drill and subsequent whir made me wince, and the hollow thunk of a baseball bat was especially convincing for a low-budget feature.
Dialogue is also distinct and well prioritized in the mix -- while lines occasionally disappear beneath the ominous drone of the transmission, the effect adds to the atmosphere without becoming a distraction. Likewise, exterior voices often sound weak, but this sort of incongruity struck me as intentional. If I have any major complaint, it’s that accuracy is a bit sporadic and unfocused -- like most horror soundfields, the designers have evenly distributed the various elements of the soundscape to every channel to increase their impact. While these regular sonic assaults definitely amp up particular scares, I would prefer to hear more creative uses of the surround environment. Regardless, ‘The Signal’s DTS HD MA mix sounds great and will surprise anyone expecting a typical, low-budget soundtrack.
The Blu-ray edition of ’The Signal’ offers all of the supplemental content that appears on its standard DVD counterpart. The video features are only presented in standard definition, but fans will find a surprising amount of depth for such a modest, low-budget film.
’The Signal’ may not be the latest and greatest evolution of horror to invade your home theater, but it’s a surprisingly solid, well-crafted thriller that offers a great cast and story. Despite the low-key, low-budget nature of the production, Magnolia has released the film on Blu-ray with a faithful video transfer, an excellent DTS HD MA audio track, and a heaping portion of supplemental features. While it can’t go head to head with more expensive flicks on the market, ‘The Signal’ manages to defy its straight-to-video roots and budgetary limitations to present a film that looks and sounds much better than one might expect. This release is definitely worth a look.