Stomping Around in the Dark 8: “The Signal”
There are no monsters in The Signal. There’s just us.
As zombies have come back into vogue, it’s become standard in movies to develop a new angle (“What if zombies were fast?”, etc.). When The Signal started off by infecting an entire city via a bizarre transmission through the TV, radio, and telephones, I thought, “OK, cute twist, being made zombies by our own technology.”
Then, ten minutes later I found myself quite proud of the movie for not using this as an explanation for zombies, but rather for a violent mass psychosis. This is different. As one character explains it:
“People going crazy in their head all over. At first, it’s just murder. The crazy, you know, kill anybody, everybody, each other, indiscriminate. It looks like chaos. But then I realize they’re thinking. Then I get really scared because it’s rational. They know what they’re doing. I mean, they think it makes sense, but it doesn’t make any sense. It’s different for everybody. Let me tell you, they are going to fucking murder the world.”
Suddenly we realize we’re not watching a “survive against monsters” movie. We’re watching what happens when everyone goes mad at the same time.
It’s a great hook, but it’s not a movie by itself. And it’s here that I really appreciated The Signal for recognizing a basic storytelling rule that so few horror movies bother with: We Need to Care About These People in Order to Be Concerned For Their Safety.
The heart of the film is in the behavior of the three leads, both before and after the signal transmits, and what it tells us about how people respond to crisis. Mya is closed-off and on edge from what is clearly a crap marriage, and responds to an apocalypse by looking for the one good thing in her life. Her husband Lewis is needy and controlling – traits we see amped up in the second segment as he gamely attempts to problem-solve with a broken brain. And her boyfriend Ben is philosophical, compassionate, and clever – making us wonder if, how, and finally to what extent the signal has affected him.
The film is actually three smaller, interlocking stories, broken up into “transmissions” by different directors: The beginning is as close to standard “zombie outbreak” as the film ventures; the second, twisting into quite hilarious black comedy, takes us inside the illogical logic of Lewis as he finds himself “protecting” a would-be New Year’s party; and the finale reaches the emotional core – as Ben and Mya attempt to connect before they’re both trapped by the end of the world.
And because we care about each of these characters (even Lewis, who isn’t the standard-issue abusive lout many films would’ve given us so we can more quickly sympathize with Mya), the horror works. The shocks and threats of serious violence are effective. Because we genuinely want things to get better, even as the violence escalates, the extent of the damage is shown, and we get the sneaking suspicion that it’s far too late for any happy endings.
The ending we do get depends on our interpretation of three questions: 1) If the signal was localized to this one city, or if it’s a more widespread phenomenon; 2) If a romantic or tragic ending suits the story better; and 3) How the minor editing shifts affect the actual chronology of the final scenes.
While I can see the bent appeal of the tragic ending, I choose to believe in the slightly more romantic one, because it offers a message, a meaning (which is so often lacking in horror movies – an answer to the question, “What’s it really about?”).
It tells us that we can fight through madness, we can navigate the apocalypse, if there’s someone we love enough to face it with.