Late one night, a psychedelic, screaming signal begins issuing from the televisions, radios, and phones in an anonymous light-industrial city somewhere in the southern U.S. It looks like the lava lamp on steroids, and it sounds like a geiger counter going crazy. And crazy is exactly what you get if you see or hear the signal for any length of time. Main characters Ben and Mya, a pair of adulterous lovers who are about to run away together, find themselves suddenly surrounded by people who think it's perfectly reasonable to kill their neighbors with wire cutters and spray everybody with insect poison. Directed by three indie filmmakers from Atlanta, the movie is told in three parts that veer from harrowing ultraviolence, to dark satire, to blood-soaked love story. The Signal will creep you out and make you laugh uncomfortably. And if you live in a city, you won't be able to wash the images of urban omni-violence out of your eyes for a long, long time.
Our first tipoff that things are getting bizarre comes in a scene clearly designed to remind us that signal-induced violence is only a tiny step away from TV-induced violence in every day life. Mya returns home to her husband Lewis after her rendezvous with Ben, and finds him and his pals getting drunk and filled with rage as they watch the game on TV. Each time the mind-scrambling signal interrupts the transmission, they take another step beyond armchair-slapping and curses. Finally, Lewis beats one of the guys to death before Mya's eyes, then turns to her.
From there we follow Mya on her horrifying flight across a city littered with dead bodies, as she tries to reach the train station where she's agreed to meet Ben at midnight to run away. Lewis and Ben, meanwhile, are both trying to find Mya — the former giving into his most violent hallucinations, and the latter trying to maintain his sanity. Perhaps the best parts of the film, however, center on Lewis. His jealous-husband monomania is pitch-perfect, as is his comic timing.
In the second part of the movie, Ben stumbles upon a group of people attempting to have an uptight, suburban New Year's Eve party even while they periodically give into the urge to kill and mutilate each other. A kind of freakish sitcom air settles over the film as a lady who wants nothing more than to have a "nice party" feeds crackers to her blood-spattered guests and brings her dead husband a drink (she killed him with an air pump to the neck after he tried to strangle her to death). Lewis joins in gleefully, lecturing everyone on the value of having a faithful wife while trying to beat various people to death with a tank full of insect poison.
One is a bit sorry to leave this world of violent satire and return to the drama of Ben and Mya attempting to reunite with each other — there's a kind of sentimental core to the film that seems misplaced. This is no Videodrome, where a rogue TV signal turns human sympathy into a phantom and all love is programmed. Beneath all the gore and antisocial mayhem in The Signal, there's a strangely traditional belief in the redemptive love of a tough man for a teeny blond woman.
Still, this is hardly the point. The Signal delivers the freakout all cult movie lovers hope for, and does it far more artfully than most mainstream scifi-horror does. You'll laugh; you'll puke; and most importantly you won't forget it.