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Broadcast Signal Intrusion (15)
Director: Jacob Gentry
Screenplay: Phil Drinkwater, Tim Woodall
Starring: Harry Shum Jr, Kelley Mack, Chris Sullivan
Review: David Stephens
There's something creepy about a TV. Just ask the cast of Poltergeist and Ringu. However, this film is partly based on a true-life incident in 1987, where someone wore a Max Headroom mask and interrupted a news broadcast and a showing of Doctor Who on Chicago TV channels for a lark. The mind boggles! Anyway, the movie is directed by Jacob Gentry, who co-directed The Signal (2007), as well as writing and filming Synchronicity (2015). It stars Harry Shum Jr from the Shadowhunters series and was also inspired by a number of creepypasta tales. It screened in SXSW 2021, as well as Sitges and Frightfest later that same year. After a brief theatrical in the US, the movie is getting a limited cinema run in the UK as well as being available for rent or purchase on VOD. We dusted off the cathode ray tubes and took a look.
It's Chicago 1999, and James (Shum Jr.) has a humdrum job archiving VHS footage to disc for a TV station. As he's recovering from a personal tragedy, he also spends time at home repairing cameras and attending group counselling sessions. During his duties, he comes across a bizarre signal interruption on a cheesy sci-fi show from the 1980s that shows a white-masked figure speaking unintelligibly, along with some cryptic images. It lasts for seconds but leaves an indelible impression. He tracks down another piece of footage and is told that a third one also exists. James becomes obsessed with them and uses his editing skills to start to gather clues about its origin. Gradually he becomes convinced that there might be a connection with them to recent criminal events…
It's probably worth pointing out that the horror content in BSI is pretty light. Apart from one sequence, there is nothing particularly graphic, and most of the violence is inferred rather than shown full-on. The "intrusion" sequences (and some nightmare scenes) are pretty creepy(pasta), with the masked figure looking like a cross between Michael Myers and Leatherface when he was in transvestite mode in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994). Having said that, there is an underlying sense of unease and subdued nastiness that feels like it's going to break the surface at some point. During a confrontation in an alleyway and a meeting with a suspect in a basement, both moments instil significant tension into the scenes. However, that suspense is sometimes broken intentionally as potential conflict is avoided, despite audio cues suggesting otherwise.
Whilst the narrative makes it sound like a variant on 8MM (1999), Videodrome (1983), or Banshee Chapter (2013), it is absolutely nothing like any of those films. In fact, it mostly feels like a detective noir flick, especially with the mournful jazz music that frequently dominates the soundtrack. Occasionally it will also blast out a bit of prog-rock, and it feels a bit like a Giallo, especially with some of the unlikely narrative twists and the stagey dialogue that the supporting characters use ("I don't want you to fall down a rabbit-hole that you can't climb out of"). It is quite lengthy and feels like it's spinning-its-wheels at times, but for the most part, it is strangely compelling, and you're driven to stick with it as James peels away the onion layers of the mystery, often finding more questions than answers.
Much of this is due to Shum Jr's performance which manages to give a lot of substance to James, even during the lengthy interludes where he is alone or silent. He is able to infuse the character with some intensity and charm whilst retaining a Keanu-Reeves-like zen quality that feels like an "everyman" caught up in events he shouldn't be involved in. This is important for the story to work, as other supporting characters drift in and out of his orbit, making only partial contributions to his investigation in many cases. It's mostly down to him and a nice turn by Kelley Mack (as Alice, remember that quote about the "rabbit hole"?) to carry the bulk of the plot.
Depending on your outlook, the conclusion manages to be surprisingly straightforward … or completely baffling. It certainly hints that there's much more going on than should be taken at face value. Much of its success will depend on how you react to the film's style, pace, and content as a whole. At the very least, it is a nicely handled and original take on something that could be cliched or obvious. There are some digs at 80's and 90's culture, with crappy fictional shows like "Stepbot" being entirely possible at the time (ask older relatives about the sheer horror of the kids' show Small Wonder!!). Most of the context of the storyline hangs on the concept of grief and the validity of James' viewpoint. It's not going to hit a home run for everyone, but it feels clever and unique (in a good way) and doesn't take the obvious route to queasiness and horror. And there's nothing wrong with that. Worth tuning into if you want to take the chance.
Stylised, lengthy, and light on actual horror, there is nevertheless something strangely compelling about BSI. On the one hand, it's a mix of detective noir and a Giallo plot that threatens to get weird and violent at certain points. On the other, it's a bizarro mix of grief and subjective storytelling. It's an acquired taste, but at least it's an original take on some well-worn themes and worth catching for those willing to take a risk.
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