"The Signal," a new sorta-kinda horror thriller, is set in a future-present that seems like the present-past. Flat-screen TVs are broadcasting an emission that turns whoever watches it into a paranoid killer (or something like that). But nostalgia for 2003 is quietly afoot. The film recaptures an age when AT&T was still Cingular and when almost every scene seems to be unfolding in a video for a Hoobastank song. One of the characters even flees danger lugging around her Discman.
Amid all the bedlam - people run screaming down hallways and streets - is a simple story of forbidden love. Ben (Justin Welborn) is trying to find Mya (Anessa Ramsey), the married woman who's been cheating with him. He looks like a barista. She looks like a spinning instructor. Together, they seem like they'd have a hot graphic-design start-up.
I'm just speculating. Atlanta-based writer-director-editors David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry don't give much away (there's not a lot of where, why, and how). The withholding has its rewards. We're never properly situated, and disorientation is what we want from a movie where people bash in skulls with exterminator cans and an electric charge can momentarily reanimate a severed head. The other bonus of not knowing much about "The Signal"? It allows some of the filmmaking skill to sneak up on you.
The first scene isn't exactly promising. It's crudely made psycho-on-the-loose schlock. But soon we're safely in Ben's bed with Mya. His TV pops on and transmits the kind of sub-psychedelic imagery that could be a screensaver - or it could be how you get Jefferson Airplane to come over and play at your house.
Mya goes home to her husband, Lewis (AJ Bowen), who wants to know where she's been (drinking with the girls, duh). Before she can hop in the shower, he beats one of his buddies with a baseball bat. (In this movie's parlance, Lewis appears to have "the crazy.") Mya's attempt to escape him and her apartment building isn't all that well done. For one thing, the acting up to this point isn't very good. Neither is the sloppy but dull way the action's been directed. For another, I wasn't scared and was losing whatever curiosity I'd had. It's better than the opening sequences, but still.
Then a few scenes later, we meet Ken (Christopher Thomas) and Anna (Cheri Christian), and the movie makes a radical, jarring transition into the sort of comedic horror you might expect from an Ionesco protégé or the early days of "Saturday Night Live." Their apartment is crashed by suspicious neighbors, including the freaked-out Clark (Scott Poythress) and an entertaining letch named Jim (Chad McKnight). They might have the crazy, too.
Apparently, Bruckner, Bush, and Gentry handled different portions of the movie. The ones in that apartment are by far the most impressive. Once the movie moves on, it doesn't go anywhere all that terrific. But the filmmaking stays sharp and the acting maintains its ferocity. Welborn and Bowen are particularly good. I would just like to have personally felt some of the electricity coursing through them. Still, watching the cast is a little like discovering that Naomi Watts actually did know what she was doing in David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr." You don't feel like you've been drawn into some vast alternate universe the way you are in Lynch's movie or that major actors have been born. None of the rabbit holes in "The Signal" go that deep. But you do leave persuaded that you've discovered some talented people. I don't know whether this directing trio plans to make more movies together. If not, they might have another calling. Bruckner, Bush, and Gentry sounds like a pretty good law firm.
Their movie premiered at 2007's Sundance film festival, but its homemade feel is of a piece with the pseudo-do-it-yourself horror philosophy of "Cloverfield" and "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead," two current horror movies that suggest the genre's prerogatives have undergone a paradigm shift. The subtexts are visibly close to the surface. "The Signal" is like a Romero zombie movie in which the zombies aren't dead, they're just really temperamental. Evil here is technology-born. Maybe our cellphones and satellite dishes are giving us all the crazy. If the message is, "Turn off your TV, put your phones away, and watch more movies," you'll get no argument from me.