Saturday, February 23, 2008

"The Signal" does suggest an "interesting" problem, and experiments with segmented storytelling


The B-movie horror film “The Signal” seems noteworthy for bringing up several trends in movie making. First, is that the distributor Magnolia Pictures seem to switch names (to Magnet Releasing) for the release, perhaps to get some distance. Second, it looked like a B-movie, with fuzzy video photography and tinny sound, reminding one of “Grindhouse.” The closing credits didn’t even mention Dolby Digital.

But the main point of interest is that three separate directors wrote and made the three segments of the film, called “Transmissions.” They are, as I remember, “Crazy with Love” (David Bruckner), “The Jealousy Monster” (Jacob Gentry) and “Escape from Terminus” (Dan Bush). (Terminus is a pseudonym for Atlanta, where the film was shot, although it's hard to tell from what is shown.) But these are not three separate “shorts”. They are linked together for the same story. This film sounds like the product of a Project Greenlight “director’s contest” where each director was given the parameters of the material to write. So it seems to lack the creativity that you want from independent film.

Now, for the premise. The film starts with an embedded torture sequence from a B-movie that a character is watching, and the picture and sound start garbling. You’re not sure of it’s in the theater of film. Pretty soon, we see that the cable networks have been interrupted with this transmission of a color Rorshach, and similar cell phones and Internet on computers has been interrupted with something comparable. People start going crazy.

Pretty soon, the horror is upon us. The hallways of a moderate income apartment complex are filled with the corpses people who have turned on one another. The characters starting getting their identities mixed up. It’s pretty gory, and we see a decapitated head talk when brought to life. Finally they try to escape.

You see the problem. The characters (played by AJ Bowen, Scott Polythress, Justin Welborn, Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngaujah, Chad McNight) are too interchangeable, as are the events, to matter. It’s OK to have mayhem around if there are strong central characters, but here there are not. And so the three segments of the film are not distinct, and don’t seem to represent individual artistic visions of a storytelling problem, whether in horror or some other area.

One comparison that came to mind was the CWTV series “Supernatural.” There is constant mayhem in this series, but the two young men and brothers (Sam and Dean) are very strong individual characters, always probing to solve real moral problems (especially Sam). An episode a couple weeks ago replayed the same day with Sam (Jared Padalecki) getting up in the morning, “Rise and Shine”, reliving the same day until he can get through it with his brother (Jensen Ackles) surviving the curse of the day. That is segmented storytelling (although it looked like a rehearsal).

Another comparison was another film that opened this weekend, "Vantage Point" (Columbia, dir. Pete Travis, wr. Barry Levy), where an assassination (attempt) is replayed up to seven times from the viewpoint of different characters who come together but who don’t know each other, completing the story. It is a cinematic concept, visual and not verbal, and it’s hard to imagine this idea anywhere except in film. Columbia played its proud upward scale musical trademark this time, good to hear it—even though the film seemed a bit like a manipulative “Screen Gems” thriller.

As many moviegoers have noted, "The Signal" has a premise that reminds one of Stephen King's novel "The Cell" (blogger book review). (There are at least two unrelated films by that name.)

The underlying and disturbing concept, of course, is that people can become influenced to behave destructively, or even have their identities fried, but what they see in the media. There are number of examples known in the movies: “The Ring” movies, “Untraceable” (discussed Jan. 25 on this blog), even “Deliberate Intent”. One theme that I think a filmmaker should take up, is what has led formerly law-abiding men to become unglued and try to solicit minors when anonymous in chat rooms on the Internet (as in the notorious NBC Dateline series). I think a documentary or dramatic film could go into what is behind this from a psychological perspective. It needs to be done.

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