Having just watched The Happening in theaters, I couldn't help but notice similarities to the limited release horror film The Signal. The Signal has a low budget, no recognizable actors and is by no means a masterpiece, but the three-person writing/directorial team has managed to do what M. Night Shyamalan couldn't: deliver a disturbing adventure into insanity.
In The Happening, a supposed force of nature sweeps through cities, causing people to turn suicidal. In The Signal, a strange signal begins to broadcast on every TV and radio station, causing people to go crazy and turn homicidal. It's like a zombie movie without the lust for flesh, and considering that The Happening could be the worst movie of 2008, it's easy to see what the better alternative is.
The Signal, written and directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry, succeeds in the way it develops its homicidal maniacs. It begins with Mya Denton (Anessa Ramsey) returning home to find her boyfriend and a couple of his friends trying to fix the television, which is broadcasting a strange signal. Then, a small fight leads to the boyfriend (AJ Bowen) striking down one of his friends with a baseball bat. Mya quickly discovers that her entire apartment building has gone haywire, and barely escapes with her life. She flees with a friend, only to find that he may be inflicted by a serious and homicidal case of paranoia.
Switch gears to a landlord (Scott Poythress) who shows up for a party at the home of Anna (Cheri Christian), who appears to have killed her husband for purely logical reasons. The landlord understands this and waits for other people to show up to the party. In the meantime, Mya's boyfriend shows up, thinking that she has escaped to that apartment. The three, paranoid of what is happening outside, hole up and wait for help, but the boyfriend begins to suspect that the landlord is having an affair with his girl. Logically, he should kill him.
The great thing about The Signal is that there are no clear cut good guys and bad guys. People who appear to be normal will suddenly turn homicidal, as their paranoia about who has "got the crazy" leads them to go crazy themselves. Beyond that, the directors even delve into what the crazy people are thinking; to them, they aren't crazy at all, but simply following basic logical assumptions and carrying through with what they believe is the only course of action. The segment in Anna's apartment, which takes up half the movie, is quite entertaining, as the three characters, who are all crazy to some degree, try to get through the day, all with perfectly good explanations as to why they should be afraid of their "friends."
At times, The Signal intentionally becomes funny, which is more than can be said for The Happening (which is funny, but not in a good way). While watching the film, I can't say this is the best move, as I was starting to get into the paranoid nature of the film; once things become goofier, the tension fades away. Still, in hindsight, the absurd logic the characters apply to themselves make for a unique and entertaining segment that is surprisingly well done.
However, the final third of the film switches back to being a serious thriller, and the back-and-forth mood is offsetting. I lost interest near the end, because the movie can't decide whether it wants to be funny or serious. Furthermore, it lacks a clearly defined protagonist, which is fine until you get near the end and realize that there's no one to root for. The directors have created a creepy world where everyone is crazy, but there's no defined plot or characters to keep us engaged all the way to the ending credits.
The Signal is not without its flaws, and falls apart near the end, but there are some surprisingly well-done elements here. Recommended to those who want something a little different, or who need to get the bad taste of The Happening out of their mouths.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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