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FrightFest 2021: Broadcast Signal Intrusion Is a Fun Noir That Leaves Many Questions

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is exactly what it sounds like. On Nov 22, 1987, two Chicago-based television stations’ broadcasts were interrupted by a man wearing a Max Headroom mask. The first intrusion lasted thirty seconds and was accompanied by a high-frequency sound while the man just rocked his head back and forth to the engineered set-piece behind him, designed to mimic the Max Headroom TV show. Slightly in the evening, on another channel, Max showed back up again. This time his ninety-second intrusion saw him talking through a filtered voice box, claiming a sportscaster was liberal, singing the theme song, making other references to the 1959 animated series Clutch Cargo, and proceeding to have his bare bottom spanked with a flyswatter. The footage was likely jarring to anyone who had sat down to watch the news or the Dr. Who serial “Horror of Fang Rock” that evening. Nothing much was ever discovered about why the broadcast was pirated, and the signal disrupters have gotten away scot-free. However, it did not stop a team of federal investigators from looking into the matter further. 

Many television signals have been hacked over the years. The film, aptly titled Broadcast Signal Intrusion, turns the history of those disruptions into a tense, paranoid, conspiratorial experience in the vein of Klute or The Parallax View. We’re introduced to James (All My Life‘s Harry Shum Jr.), a television archivist who’s digitizing station broadcasts to DVD in 1999 Chicago. While backing up a copy of a news broadcast, the signal cuts out, and James becomes consumed by the bewildering video of a person in a latex mask and wig, looking robotic and moving their mouth to a series of tones. Seeking answers, James discovers a series of similar rogue transmissions dating back to the ‘80s and begins to uncover clues left in the broadcasts. The tapes soon become an obsession for James, especially after he concludes that the tapes are confessions for high-profile disappearances of women a day after their transmissions. One of these women was potentially his wife. The revelation leads him down a rabbit hole of conspiracy that finds him looking over his shoulder the closer he gets to the truth.  

Without much exposition, the movie propels you into James’s world and builds background while the story unfolds, placing the audience in the middle of a brooding neo-noir filled with shadowy figures, underground crime lords, and mystery enough for Sam Spade to find intrigue. Broadcast Signal Intrusion’s pervasive jazz score by Ben Lovett helps build the hypnotic and suspenseful world James becomes entranced with, while early internet chatrooms and the private eye aesthetic liken James’ quest for answers to those consumed by today’s true crime podcasts. The film roars like an oncoming freight train, and it’s easy to find yourself captivated by the film’s mystery and momentum. 

a hypnotic circular pattern appears behind the silhouette of a man and a VHS tape with the film pulled out is representative of his brain on the poster for Broadcast Signal Intrusion

Shortly after James confronts Alice (The Walking Dead‘s Kelley Mack), a support group stalker that finds enjoyment in making James further paranoid before becoming the Bacall to his Bogey, I found myself questioning the film’s direction. The newly formed partnership quickly produces results that no one else seems to have ever made headway on. For context, going down this rabbit hole has destroyed lives, specifically because there are multiple puzzling clues one could focus on within the disjointed broadcast intrusions. I suppose the idea that years of FBI fieldwork could produce no results is not entirely inaccurate given the tales of true crime cold case podcast solvers that we hear about, though with the plethora of avenues the duo could proceed down, they seem to make easy work of finding the one with the least roadblocks. 

For as enthralling a roller coaster ride as Broadcast Signal Intrusion is, the film leaves many questions unanswered by the end of the story. The film moves so fast you find yourself enjoying the ride until you realize that certain plot points and setups never evolve. For instance, James’ friendship with a widow at the grief counseling group he attends or another scene where a shadowy figure stalks James in the video archives at his workplace prove nerve-wracking. Though it provides a momentary shock to the viewer, the potential bandit is never discovered or, at the very least, named. And—the one that bothered me most—if women had disappeared just before the first two transmissions, had a new woman been taken as a result of the latest video? There’s similar dissonance in the film’s ending. A pretty bow is seemingly tied tightly around James’ investigation, but I felt a little unfulfilled by the exit of specific characters and the heavy reliance on implication.  

Opting for deeply unsettling moments over scenes of pervasive shock or gore, Jacob Gentry’s latest is an enthralling thriller that captivates the viewer until the very end. However, once you reach the end, questions will surface that lessen the experience. Still, I believe the ride is worth taking as the film bustles and broods with noir-ish charm. It’s also likely Gentry’s best-directed film to date. As someone who has enjoyed the director since his third of the 2007 pseudo-anthology film The Signal and admired the originality of his equally noir-ish 2016 sci-fi thriller Synchronicity, it’s become clear with Broadcast Signal Intrusion that Gentry’s unique visual style is becoming a noticeable signature to fans of his work and, because so much of it oozes with talent and imagination, Gentry is a director worth noting. 

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is playing as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2021 on August 27 and releasing from Dark Sky Films in the US on October 22. 

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Written by Sean Parker

Sean lives just outside of Boston and loves all things horror.

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