The gimmicky yet strangely moving new fright flick The Signal distinguishes itself not through originality, but by smartly integrating just about every popular trend afflicting contemporary horror films. From countless J-horror movies and American remakes, it borrows the technophobic notion that technology is great, except when it transforms people into crazed monsters. From the current spate of undead romps, it borrows a zombie-like plague that turns ordinary people into unthinking killing machines. It isn't a remake, but it nevertheless contains an awful lot of Evil Dead and George Romero in its DNA. Even its central hook—the film takes the form of three interlocking "transmissions," each written and directed by a different filmmaker—smacks of the tag-team genre filmmaking of Grindhouse.
The timeless story of a boy, a girl, and the zombie-style apocalypse that stands between them, the film casts Anessa Ramsey as a whiskey-voiced, unhappily married woman who returns from a tryst with her lover to discover that a mysterious transmission has transformed huge chunks of humanity into senseless thrill-killers. The second "transmission" marks a distinct shift in perspective and tone, as jangled nerves and raw tension are replaced by gory black comedy. Ramsey's obsessed, violent husband (A.J. Bowen) thrusts himself into a New Year's Eve party thrown by an oblivious hostess who isn't about to let something as silly as a complete breakdown in social order get in the way of a swell shindig. The slightly overlong film loses its way a bit in the final transmission, as Ramsey's husband and lover race to find her.
The filmmakers do a fine job of grounding the film in the concrete reality of an unhappily married woman grasping at a rare chance at joy, before plunging viewers into a hellscape of unimaginable horror. They similarly excel at interjecting bloody buckets of gallows humor without sacrificing tension or atmosphere, which is no mean feat given a script that involves a talking disembodied head and a clueless partygoer who doesn't realize that mankind's impending doom may be more important than scoring a New Year's Eve hook-up. Smuggled into theaters with little fanfare and less publicity, The Signal looks primed to die a quick death at the box office. But a richly deserved cult following awaits on DVD.