The first scene of The Signal has screaming women tied up with Christmas lights while a guy with a claw hammer splatters blood all over the stylistically grainy and color-saturated world.
But wait! That wasn't the actual movie, but a movie within the movie. You can tell, because the actual movie has an entirely different stylistically grainy and color-saturated video filter. It was all just a commentary on violence in the media! Or was it just a taste of the violence to come? Like most of The Signal, it's hard to tell what's meaningful subtext and what's just someone sustaining head trauma.
Originally conceived as a round-robin narrative, The Signal is divided into three parts or "transmissions," with each "transmission" written by a different director and continuing the story where the previous "transmission" left off. David Bruckner directs "transmission one," which follows the exploits of an adultress in the city of Terminus.
I think that's Terminus, Ohio, or maybe the one in Delaware. Whichever one it is, it's a city where everyone lives in tiny apartments with huge plasma-screen TVs. When weird static interupts the normal programming, before you can say "The King in Yellow," the entire city of Terminus erupts into Jason-Voorhees-style violence. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction. I once went a week without cable and killed, like, eight prostitutes.
You would think that with a premise like this, where a mysterious signal turns everyone into violent psychotics, that the hero would be someone who hates television and thereby escapes the mind-altering effects. That was the crux of the Stephen King novel Cell, which had essentially the same premise as this movie, only with cellphones. But this is Terminus. Remember the plasma-screens? Everybody in Terminus watches TV. You would also expect some sort of an exploration into the nature of the signal itself. Nope. Remember the plasma-screens? Everyone has already fried their intellect on America's Next Top Model, so they don't explore crap.
Jacob Gentry directs the second "transmission." Freed of the need to establish or resolve the plot, he goes for the gold and plays the situation for laughs. And if you think there's nothing funny about a world of violent psychotics, you're sadly mistaken. Most of the folks at the screening I attended didn't know how to take the tone shift, although admittedly there's a pretty subtle difference between a funny head-smashing and a not-funny head-smashing.
The third "transmission," directed by Dan Bush, attempts to be both funny and scary simultaneously. At least if you're the sort of person who thinks drywall-screwing somebody's forearm to the wall is funny and/or scary.
Since nearly all the action takes place inside apartments, we never see the sweeping apocalyptic action of a world gone mad, which the movie poster seems to promise. There's just the gore, spiced with sanctimonious commentary about something or other. It's hard to tell what. It's clear that The Signal aspires to something. Take for instance this sentence from the publicity material: "The Signal is a horrific journey towards discovering that the most brutal monster might actually be within all of us." Can you imagine a blander attempt to justify violence in a movie? You'd almost think they weren't talking about a movie that hinges on unsafe use of duct tape and hand tools.
As an aggressive low-budget horror film, The Signal succeeds. It has enough innovative mutilation of the human body to keep the Fangoria crowd happy. But it never comes together as the "sci-fi/horror/thriller" it claims to be. It's just a bunch of people screaming and acting erratic.