People get bashed in the head with baseball bats an awful lot in this bare-bones horror flick, and by the time it’s finished you might feel you’ve been subjected to the same treatment. “The Signal” has a certain gritty punch, and in the middle section particularly attempts to toss some satiric barbs at modern middle-class life, but in the end it doesn’t amount to much but the usual genre static.
Actually the movie is more interesting for the way in which it was made than for its content. It was shot by three writer-directors, each responsible for one of its three parts or, as they’re labeled, “transmissions.” But while it falls into discernible acts, they link up together without difficulty, with the second italicizing the darkly humorous aspects more than the others, but not in a way that disrupts the flow. That’s an accomplishment in itself, especially since the storytelling involves some tinkering with time, shuffling the chronology (though not to the extent as in the simultaneously-released “Vantage Point”).
Unfortunately, it’s all in the service of a narrative that’s pretty standard stuff. The premise is simply that some unexplained force coming through the interference in television broadcasts turns viewers into paranoid, crazed killers. Much of the focus is on Lewis (A. J. Bowen), whose wife Mya (Anessa Ramsey) is having an affair with Ben (Justin Welborn), but his jealousy-driven pursuit of them gets him involved with another woman, Anna (Cheri Christian), who’s just killed her infected husband (Christopher Thomas), and with her apartment landlord (Scott Poythress), as well as a horny, voluble guy (Chad McKnight) who shows up for a party at Anna’s. But the plot ultimately devolves into a series of bloody face-offs among the characters, sometimes involving tools like knives, drills and saws but most often those baseball bats.
The effect is rather like the original “Night of the Living Dead,” but minus the makeup, the lumbering gait and the straight-on chronology. There’s an underlying sense of unease, punctuated by periodic outbursts of old-fashioned gore, and the fact that in their madness characters sometimes perceive others wrongly, seeing them as the figures they’re obsessed by, adds a nicely perverse touch. But even over a fairly short running-time the effect pales, especially since the dialogue is by and large pretty much functional.
That’s hardly the fault of the actors, who throw themselves into their parts without restraint; this may be genre nonsense, but they approach it seriously, even when they have to play it tongue-in-cheek (or face in meat-grinder). Nor of the crew, who give the picture a look on a clearly small budget that’s appropriately grubby but still crisp.
“The Signal” has its moments, but ultimately it feels out of place in general theatrical release. It really seems ready-made for midnight-movie showings and a slot on DVD rental shelves. And even there its appeal will be limited to those who appreciate this sort of grisly black comedy.