We all sure as shit signed up for it.
—Clark (Scott Poythress)
“This is without a doubt the most fucked up day in the history of mankind.” Hyperbolic and not entirely accurate, this pronouncement feels right when Clark (Scott Poythress) makes it, midway through The Signal. This day begins the night before, when two young lovers, beautiful and adulterous Mya (Anessa Ramsey) and Ben (Justin Welborn), contemplate their future. She’s stuck in a marriage with the loutish Lewis (A.J. Bowen), he’s pressing her to take the next step. “You could just leave him,” Ben urges. “Anything’s possible.” They’ll take a train that very night, he says, “get in our own private compartment and fuck our way to freedom.”
Mya, being practical and afraid, continues to dress. Standing in shadows and plainly fond of her pretty boy, she’s missed what Ben was watching on TV before she woke, a slasher-exploitation short (2003’s The Hap Hapgood Story, by one of The Signal‘s three co-directors, Jacob Gentry), in which a hatchet-wielding brute tortures women who scream and writhe and bleed, a lot. Grainy and too close, the clip is punctuated by brief scritchy lapses, a sort of formal violence exacerbating the narrative nastiness. When Mya leaves, Ben turns on the TV again, yielding a scritch that turns into The Signal‘s first title: “Transmission 1: Crazy in Love.”
Divided into three “transmissions,” directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush (“The Jealousy Monster”), and Gentry (“Escape from Terminus”), the movie lays out an intimate, insidious relationship between TV and its consumers. Ostensibly inducing some horrific mutation in viewers, the “signal” is pervasive, with TVs apparently turning themselves on and viewers feeling filled with rage, turning on neighbors and loved ones with peculiar vehemence. The infected behave like zombies consumed by rage, seeing their worlds upside down and backwards, as paranoid fantasies bleed into memories and seemingly actual exchanges of blood and fury, involving bats, garden shears, and pest control poisons. While the premise isn’t news (see also: Videodrome, George Romero’s oeuvre, 28 Days Later, and any number of ‘70s horror flicks), this version gets points for its changing the terms of argument. Most any moment that appears to make sense, or at least grant a coherent perspective, soon turns nightmarish, as if channels are switching randomly. Viewing affects what’s viewed.
But there is no randomness here, only very bloody calculation. On her way home, Mya stumbles on a bloody guy near her car, his aggressive pleas for help unnerving her. Though she wants to dismiss him as an aberration, you know it’s only a matter of time before she sees the entire city is overrun with frothing, furious killers. Back at her apartment, Lewis is even meaner than usual, his jealousy erupting into full-on hysteria as he slams his beer-buddy with a bat.
Mya may or may not be protected by the fact that she’s wearing headphones to listen to Ben’s surprise gift, a mix-CD (the actual logistics may be complicated, but mostly, they’re unexplained). As everyone in her building is soon dead or marauding the hallways in search of victims, she hides in a closet, eventually hooking up with neighbor Rod (Sahr Ngaujah). “Did you get crazy in your head?” he asks. He’s been observing the symptoms. “It looks like chaos,” he notes, his voice low and conniving. “But they’re thinking. It makes sense. They’re gonna murder the world.” For a moment, the film slows down, as Mya and Rod ponder possibilities, where to go, how to understand, what to do. Rod pokes around at moral dilemmas, wondering, for instance, whether it’s right to kill someone who’s been desperately injured, whether killing in self-defense redefines you one of them. Is it even possible to distinguish between us and them, or is everyone about to be them, which makes them us? Mya’s more inclined to move on, deciding that she’ll go look for Ben at the train station, as he suggested, after all. When Rod and Mya finally make their way outside (“We don’t stop,” he insists, “We don’t talk to anybody”), they’re immediately beset by scary folks. “Do you have the crazy?” Rod asks, as if hoping that the ability to form an answer is a definition. “I don’t have the crazy,” he tells himself, because he must.
The second and third sections of the film leave Mya and Rod mostly behind, though she turns up in fantasies that might be realities for both Ben and Lewis. Their reappearances mark the film’s most intriguing idea, as they may or may not be real, and may or may not be each other (they bleed into one another, the actors trade places, their perspectives are increasingly swapped). All of this leaves open the possibility that they’re figures in someone else’s fantasy, though the movie doesn’t insist on a single or very coherent subjectivity.
At the start of the second section, Lewis stumbles on a would-have-been New Year’s party. Looking sadly over her preparations (balloons and streamers), Anna (Cheri Christian) sighs, “I just don’t think we can have people over right now.” Indeed, survival seems a more urgent concern, as she husband Ken (Christopher Thomas) let Lewis inside, along with their shovel-wielding landlord Clark. Yes, they’ve already had run-ins with killers and had to commit mayhem themselves, but they’re hard put to make sense of what’s going on, hoping instead to restore some semblance of order. Lewis and Clark hunker down in the sofa, drinks and pretzels before them, trying to parse events. “Everybody’s a suspect right now,” Clark asserts, his paranoia confirmed as Lewis is increasingly unhinged, determined to repossess his wife. Carrying a can of bug spray (with a seeming nod to Jeffrey’s “disguise” in Blue Velvet), Lewis takes Clark’s concept the next step: “We need to exterminate, exterminate with extreme prejudice.”
As Clark begins to see that Lewis in a new light, Lewis is also seeing otherwise, imagining that Anna is Mya. “The TV got in your brain,” says Clark, “and has distorted your perception. You don’t even know what happened to you. Your wife left you.” When Lewis takes offense and starts spraying his bug poison, the frame literally blurs, victims screaming in fear and pain. But though he has seeming-lucid moments (“Everything is not what it seems. It’s telling me what I should do, what I should want”), Lewis can’t keep stable, can’t keep a hold of himself, whoever that might be.
As the perspective shifts between Ben and Lewis, The Signal‘s last section follows Mya—or the possibility of Mya—to the terminal, a point of departure, movement, and termination. Fearful for his girl’s safety, raging at her husband, Ben tries to situate himself. But just when Ben thinks he’s figured it out, the signal, he’s fooled again. “It’s a lie, it’s a trick,” he says. “We change the way we look at things, the things we look at will change.” It’s as good a summary of what you’ve been looking at as you’re likely to get.