SXSW: BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION (2021)

Broadcast Signal Intrusion.jpg

Studio:      Queensbury Pictures
Director:    Jacob Gentry
Writer:      Phil Drinkwater, Tim Woodall
Producer:  Nicola Goelzhaeuser, Giles Edwards, Brett Hays, Greg Newman
Stars:     Harry Shum Jr., Kelley Mack, Justin Welborn, Chris Sullivan, Jennifer Jelsema, Steven Pringle, Michael B. Woods, Arif Yampolsky

Review Score:

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Summary:

A video archivist unearths a bizarre conspiracy that connects cases of TV signal hijacking to a string of unsolved disappearances.


Synopsis:     

Review:

If you¡¯ve never seen the original broadcast signal intrusions (BSI) that inspire the starting point for ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion,¡± consider watching them before watching the movie. They aren¡¯t essential for following the fictional story, though they do help frame the film¡¯s bizarre feeling.

During a November 1987 news broadcast on WGN in Chicago, someone in a Max Headroom mask hijacked the station¡¯s transmission. For a few strange seconds, ¡°Max¡± swayed from side to side while peculiar noises crackled and a sheet of wavy metal spun in the background.

Things got weirder later that night during a ¡°Doctor Who¡± rerun over on WTTW. This time, for almost a full minute and a half, the masked Max giggled some garbled nonsense, screamed several times, and moaned out puzzling messages. The intrusion ended with Max claiming, ¡°They¡¯re coming to get me!¡± before pulling down his pants so a woman could spank his bare ass with a flyswatter. It sounds amusing, because it is. Yet the combination of distorted audio, swirling metal square, and overall oddness makes the footage as creepy as it is comical. As of 2021, no one knows who committed these acts, which are federal crimes, let alone why.

¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± begins similarly, but more ominously. While transferring videotapes for a local TV station, James stumbles across a nightly news interruption from 1987 where someone in a weird white mask and black wig makes mannequin-like movements over disorienting audio. Looking into the incident leads James to discover a second BSI whose footage, which again consists of a masked figure behaving erratically, seems straight out of an experimental horror movie, or possibly a serial killer¡¯s home videos. Nothing criminal occurs on either tape. James remains intrigued all the same.

Curiosity quickly takes James down a rabbit hole. Official channels dead-end in missing files or else trigger FBI flags for simply inquiring about the matter. On BBS message boards however, James finds a whole host of amateur investigators offering interpretations, explanations, and information. Some connect the pirate broadcasts to a string of unsolved kidnappings. This hits close to home since James¡¯s wife Hannah vanished one year ago. James thinks he may find some surrogate sort of closure if he can solve this riddle. Except the closer he comes to the truth, the more James opens himself to a possible conspiracy that consumes his mind before threatening to destroy his entire life too.

¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± is a telecommunications-based paranoia thriller very much in the vein of classics like Francis Ford Coppola¡¯s ¡°The Conversation¡± and Brian De Palma¡¯s ¡°Blow Out.¡± Hazy details and cryptic clues drop a breadcrumb trail to keep the mystery humming at a steady pace. The movie doesn¡¯t rely on ambiguity enough to qualify as an atmosphere-dependent arthouse amble, although ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± absolutely makes mood an integral component of its attractiveness.

Following in Coppola and De Palma¡¯s footsteps, director Jacob Gentry starts by serving his setup on a plate of New Age noir. Thick shafts of darkness lean across every interior. Exteriors are shot beneath overcast skies. A sad trumpet warbles on the score as though foreshadowing a fedora-pinching gumshoe about to narrate his troubles with some dame. This slice of Chicago is a hard-boiled place populated by lonely-hearted people, and sound and cinematography terrifically reflect that tone.

The setting doesn¡¯t always stay with this smoky detective theme. Other aspects of composer Ben Lovett¡¯s music fill out with Lalo Schifrin la-la-las reminiscent of ¡°The Amityville Horror.¡± Echoing piano keys sound readymade for a broadcast TV movie circa Jimmy Carter¡¯s administration. Hearing such strains under the haunted hero¡¯s deepening descent into an obsessive investigation brings to mind ¡°The Norliss Tapes¡± or ¡°Kolchak: The Night Stalker¡± when ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± summons the vibe of a Dan Curtis production marrying procedural crime with diabolical ¡®70s horror.

The film takes place in 1999, but also incorporates references to ¡®80s sitcom ¡°Small Wonder¡± as well as the notorious ¡°Doctor Who¡± interruption. ¡°Doctor Who¡± assumes the form of ¡°Don Cronos,¡± a knockoff that recreates fast and cheap British sci-fi so accurately, it doesn¡¯t look any different than a clip from ¡°Blake¡¯s 7.¡± ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡¯s¡± version of ¡°Small Wonder¡± is ¡°Stepbot,¡± whose lead character, an android created to care for a widow¡¯s five children, is what the broadcast pirate disturbingly disguises himself as. While continuing to stir together these various eras, ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± takes viewers on an eclectic neo-pulp tour through an unnerving underworld of cobwebbed cellars, dimly-lit dive bars, alleyways slicked with rain puddles, and shady meetings underneath waterfront train tracks.

Another work ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± mirrors is Joe Berlinger¡¯s Netflix documentary about Elisa Lam and the Cecil Hotel, a real-life instance of self-made internet sleuths losing perspective by connecting coincidences into a conspiracy. The movie ends much like Lam¡¯s true tragedy: in a last stop that isn¡¯t as satisfyingly shocking as the sinister shadows suggested. Someone could defend ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡¯s¡± disappointing denouement by reasoning that reality rarely turns out to be as revelatory as what an imagination invents. Nevertheless, that fact still hinders this film.

In spite of erecting an alluring cinemascape that skillfully funnels its influences, ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡¯s¡± script bears scars in need of bandaging. If I were scoring the movie solely as a narrative, a full star would be deducted at a minimum. The conclusion in particular curls a loose-fingered fist that only packs a limp punch. After losing speed down a stretch that detours into overlong misdirects and inconsequential asides, ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± backs into a corner where it can¡¯t help but peter out because, like the unsolved incidents that inspired the premise, it isn¡¯t quite sure how to end. ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± gives up on giving out concrete answers to instead coast on the strength of its stylish psychological chills.

Regardless of the fiction¡¯s frustrating flaws, affinity for the amalgamation of homages can hypnotically hook viewers into the movie¡¯s weird world. I might have intermittently lost interest in the plot¡¯s stalling tactics if not for the intoxicating dread permeating the drama. The film is not consistently tense, but it is consistently textured. ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± breathes the air of a vaguely nightmarish limbo where unspecified evils seemingly threaten every step, even though nothing substantive comes from much of the suspense.

Normally, a mix of ¡®40s noir, ¡®60s sci-fi, ¡®80s sitcoms, and small screen fright films of the ¡®70s tossed in a late ¡®90s setting might make for a noisy mish-mash of confusingly conflicted callbacks. Here however, ¡°Broadcast Signal Intrusion¡± collects an assembly of touchstones that becomes as uniquely unusual as a man in a Max Headroom mask humming the theme to ¡°Clutch Cargo¡± while spoofily shilling Coca-Cola. By coloring all of this nostalgia with creepiness, the movie captures the entrancing eeriness of an actual broadcast signal intrusion in feature film form, and you almost always feel those creeps pimpling flesh from the underside of your skin.

Review Score: 80