Stomping Around in the Dark 8: “The Signal”

Posted: October 30, 2008 in Jeff Holland, poetics
Tags: , , , ,

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.

  1. Moff says:

    I’ve been wanting to see this since it came out, and this just confirms that feeling.

  2. Lisa says:

    Wow Jeff. You actually just made me want to see a horror movie… Well done.

    I also have to say, your final statement is a bit… mushy. Something I wouldn’t have expected from you. It’s sweet.

  3. Hsiang says:

    So more like the reavers from Serenity than zombies, cool. Cannibals with a plan are a hell of a lot more frightening than mindless shamblers no matter how fast they shamble.
    The daring inclusion of protagonists sounds great. One thing that turns me off horror flicks is that after a while I really want the Monster to off the “heroes”.
    Thanks for the recommendation, sir.

  4. Hsiang says:

    Damnit. “…sympathetic protagonists…

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    I can be mushy sometimes. Though apparently it’s the end of the world I usually get sentimental about.

    I should also mention the DVD extras, which are that rarest of treats: useful as supplementary materials.

    There are three short “transmissions,” which are quite effective as little doses of horror/humor. There is also an uninterrupted “signal” effect, for those of you who want to stare at weird crap on your TVs for extended periods of time.

    (I am one of those people who watched the entire episode of “Everyone Loves Hypno-Toad” on the Futurama: Bender’s Big Score DVD, so..yeah.)

  6. […] The Signal The Story: Three interlocking narratives track what happens when everyone in the world goes absolutely mad at the same time. What Makes It Scary: Again the loss of mental control is unnerving, but what makes this an effective film is the care it puts into crafting three well-rounded, interesting, sympathetic leads, and shoves every possible obstacle into their way – forcing the audience to keep hoping for a happy ending when all signs point to apocalypse. […]

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