February 28, 2008

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The Signal (R)
TV turns a city’s population into psycho killers in The Signal, a low-budget-seeming yet moderately entertaining variation on the zombie movie.

Technically, nobody here is undead. But when Mya (Anessa Ramsey) heads to her car after spending an evening with her boyfriend Ben (Justin Welborn) she finds strange, entranced people stumbling around. Does it have something to do with the strange signal coming through the TV, the phones and the radio? One of these wide-eyed, drunk-seeming men grabs her, getting blood on her shirt from his abdominal wound. She gets away but when she gets to her apartment building she sees even more chaos in her halls and then, inside her apartment, her husband Lewis (AJ Bowen) is jumpy and paranoid, aware without knowing that something is up with his wife and quick to take it out on his equally squirrelly-seeming friends. When he gets his hands on a baseball bat and starts swinging, she heads out into the hall and — after just escaping from being strangled and having her neck sliced open — is able to lock herself into a (now dead) neighbor’s apartment. In the morning, she tentatively creeps outside to find a hallway littered with bodies.

As she’s slinking through the hall, she just misses Ben, who has come in search of her. Mya is pulled into a closet by one of Lewis’ friends (maybe sane, we’re never really sure) and Ben heads to Mya’s apartment to find her husband taped to a chair inside. Lewis is face-bitingly drunk with “the crazy” (as his maybe-sane friend calls the blinding lunacy brought on by the signal) but manages to hold back his kill instincts long enough to do things like throw Ben in the back of his van and set off to find Mya. He finds her car — crashed — but not her and eventually ends up in the company of Clark (Scott Poythress) and other residents of an apartment complex who might have escaped “the crazy” but are still a little touched.

The movie starts out with a TV screening an old-fashioned low-budget slasher movie. The Signal shares the tone and the feel of this kind of movie (running, screaming, bleeding) though it tries for a bit more meat, concept-wise. The movie’s trio of writers and directors (David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry) apparently each take on one of the film’s three sections. The middle section, which features a loony party hostess who hasn’t quite accepted the fact that she’s had to kill her “crazy”-having husband and much dark slapstick involving the Mya-hunting Lewis, is probably the most distinctive of the three. It blends humor and horror in a style that is similar to a campier Eli Roth. The bookending sections are a little more serious — with the setup of “the crazy” and the reunion of Ben and Mya taking the focus in parts one and three, respectively. While I didn’t love these parts I didn’t hate them either. If you like chasing and running and screaming and guys getting decapitated by shovels, this movie gives you all of that with just enough spunk and just enough quirks to make you shrug off the fact that you’ve seen much of this before.

In this new multi-delivery-channels world, will we see more low-budget movies aimed at reaching a genre audience in a variety of venues (movie theaters, Internet, some future on-demand version of cable)? Will making a series of quirky horror movies (or for that matter bodice-ripping romances or brainy sci-fis — both genres that don’t have to have stars to work) become a viable alternative for some studios to betting the farm on one big blockbuster? If The Signal is any indication, this higher-concept, lower-budget approach to movies is worth exploring. B-

Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and brief nudity. Written and directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry, The Signal is an hour and 41 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Magnet.