Here's a picture that brings back the old grindhouse days with more dismal authenticity than anything Quentin Tarantino has come up with. "The Signal" exhibits all the attributes of classic Z-movie drive-in trash: the dingy lighting, the variable focus, the lobotomized dialogue and general eye-glazing lassitude that betoken a budget for which the word "low" seems somehow inadequate.
It's a zombie-gore movie, essentially — a tale told in three parts, each separately written, directed, shot and edited by Atlanta filmmakers David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry. Their segments fit together only barely at best, which, I gather, is supposed to be part of the fun. The plot linchpin is simple: A mysterious, brain-frying transmission has taken over all the televisions and telephones in Terminus City, driving those exposed to it into frenzies of head-bashing, throat-slashing, eye-gouging and what have you. The picture is heavily indebted to George A. Romero's old "Living Dead" films, of course; unfortunately, the flesh-rending effects here add nothing new to what prosthetics master Tom Savini accomplished in some of those movies 30 years ago. "The Signal" thus resembles a film-school genre exercise more than anything else; and being hyperbolically bloody in a very familiar way, it just isn't scary.
The story probes the depths of incoherence. Basically, we have a young woman named Mya (Anessa Ramsey) fleeing her wretched apartment after her husband, Lewis (AJ Bowen), is driven nuts by the malignant signal emanating from their TV set and starts laying into people with a baseball bat. And we have a guy named Ben (Justin Welborn), with whom Mya has been cheating on Lewis, who sets out in search of her through the body-strewn streets of the city. From this premise we descend into a narrative murk of tinfoil hats, jokey decapitations, tiresome perspective and identity shifts and a sub-Lynchian cocktail-party-with-corpse. (There's also a soundtrack oddity: a cover of "Atmosphere" by Ola Podrida, the band run by David Wingo, better-known for scoring the films of his friend David Gordon Green. It's a fine version of the song, but if you're going to go for old Joy Division tunes in a picture about an otherworldly transmission, why not use "Transmission"?)
Despite the movie's shortcomings, one wishes better luck in the future to some of the people who made it. Given their lack of resources, the directors have come up with a few resourceful effects (a talking head in a vise is pretty funny) and some cute lines too. (When a pest-control spray canister turns up in a scene, one character deadpans, "We have to exterminate with extreme prejudice.") A couple of the actors have a professional presence that suggests something beyond regional theater, and Anessa Ramsey, especially, has a warm blonde appeal that could elevate her into better pictures. In fact, if "The Signal" is remembered at all, it might one day be as a footnote — the low-rent feature that gave Ramsey her start.
Check out everything we've got on "The Signal."
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Charlie Bartlett" here.
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.