Monday, March 23, 2009

We Interrupt This Broadcast to Bring You The Crazy

The Signal is a minor gem of a film, a tri-directed 2007 horror/comedy/thriller that hints at greatness, revels in dark humor, and ultimately slides into a romantic snooze. Frightening, funny, and frustratingly uneven, this is a fine--if flawed-- foray into low budget independent cinema by the mighty (and low profile) triumvirate of David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry. No, I don't know much about them--including who directed which segment--but they're definitely on my radar for future films.

Quick Plot: After a night romp with a mixed tape-making lover, unhappily married Maya (Anessa Ramsey) returns home to discover her bearish husband (AJ Bowen, channeling the Pam-spurned Roy from The Office) wielding a baseball bat at his sports buddies while the big screen TV ominously plays a psychedelic glow of rainbow sherbet. Anyone who’s read Stephen King’s Cell can guess that technology is a little angry with us (or maybe just bored) and is looking to arouse a good ol’ round of mass insanity and violence in its human consumers.

Evil machinery is nothing new, but The Signal’s freshness lies in its construction: the film is told in three parts, with three directors using three distinct styles to follow a handful of characters through a night and day in a small city gone mad. The approach is similar to another recent indie horror, The Zombie Diaries, with both benefiting from using standard monster setups that enter new and darker directions.

Part I is raging horror, as Maya attempts to escape the city of Terminus with the help of a possibly crazy, possibly just well-equipped with survival skills Sahr Ngaujah. The intensity recalls the opening of Dawn of the Dead 04, as the spread of violent chaos spreads through the hallways of a modern apartment complex and into an empty street at dawn. The fear is real, the action is unpredictable, and we're caught in an intensely believable and terrifying world on the edge.

The second segment abruptly switches moods to capture the blackest of comedy, as Maya’s weirdly cheerful neighbors prepare for a sunny and balloon-filled New Year’s party, unaware that their guests may be delayed (or dismembered or dead). The performances are very deliberate and a tad one dimensional (although Scott Poythress does make a refreshingly unconventional leading man) but once you accept the new direction, the laughs are as hearty as they are bloody. There is still plenty of horror to be found--Bowen's exterminator by way of Abu Ghraib is a sight I won't forget anytime soon--but the comedy is perfectly pitched in a very dark hue.

It may be a matter of personal taste, but I got lost in the third segment, which moves the perspective to Maya’s boyfriend (Justin Welborn, who probably spends an average of eight minutes a day convincing people on the street that he's not Simon Pegg) as he makes his heroic way to the city’s edge. The contrast in tone from the offbeat macabre silliness of the previous segment to the quiet drama of this part feels too jarring and dull. Although we do care for this unlucky couple, the flashbacks, musical cues, and general heaviness of their conclusion feels much longer than its thirty minute run time .

High Points
A conversation with a smoking head-in-a-vice is as wonderful as it sounds

Something that always scares me about raging human horror is the manual factor; being shot is probably painful, but being killed by hand tools seems far worse

Call me nerdy, but Lewis and Clark jokes never fail to succeed

Chad McKnight's performance as a lazily oversexed and generally unwanted (even if the world didn't have The Crazy) guest is, for a brief time, the ahem, life of the party

Low Points
Clark's frantic-yet-somehow-exposition-rich explanation of what the signal may be drags down the center

The montageness of Part III never feels earned

Lessons Learned
When everyone in your neighborhood has turned into a raging homicidal maniac, it’s probably unwise to walk around with head phone at full blast

Despite previous evidence to the contrary, duct tape does not solve every problem

Always wear your seatbelt

This modest sleeper was well discussed through 2008, even garnering an Independent Spirit Award nomination. It's a highly imperfect film, but certainly worth a viewing, if only to form your own opinion on what worked and didn't. There's a part of me that wished the entire film had been done in the brutal style of the first third and another part that wanted a full-length comedy with all the violent cruelty of the second segment. Ultimately, the triple action made this a unique experiment that has its low points, but succeeds at creating atypical scares and laughs. The DVD comes with a commentary and several extras, so it's an investment worth making if you enjoy violent horror and/or black and bloody comedy with a modern twist.

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