Movies: Broadcast Signal Intrusion (2021)

I can’t remember exactly how I first heard about the 2021 film Broadcast Signal Intrusion, but the title must have stuck in my mind, because as soon as I saw it pop up in the “Free To Me” section of Amazon Prime, I felt compelled to watch it. At first, I thought maybe I’d run across the title when I was researching a show on creepy YouTube videos (a form of which factors into the plot of the film), but a quick check demonstrates that I did that show back in October of 2020 and Broadcast Signal Intrusion didn’t premiere until March of 2021 (at South by Southwest) and didn’t get a wider release until October of the same year. So I don’t know why this film stuck out to me in particular, but it did, so I watched it.

The movie was directed by Jacob Gentry, who also co-wrote and co-directed the excellent 2007 horror flick The Signal (which I have seen, but should get around to talking about one of these days, now that I think of it) and was also responsible for the My Super Psycho Sweet 16 trilogy (which I haven’t seen). If you like your horror laced with a downbeat noir vibe and you’re really into plots involving eerie conspiracy theories, then this should be right up your alley (or down your rabbit hole, to use a more apt phrase), but I will warn you that the ending is sort of anticlimactic and the mystery isn’t really completely resolved. The point of the movie isn’t to be a cut-and-dried mystery per se, but I can understand if some viewers were left disappointed or wanting more. Personally, I did kinda think, “Oh, we’re gonna end here? Okay…” But the more I thought about it, the more I understood what the movie was trying to do. Not gonna lie, it was still a bit frustrating; but I did like the movie overall.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is set in 1999, in Chicago. Our main character is a young man named James (played by Harry Shum Jr., best known from his role on Glee), whose wife Hannah mysteriously disappeared three years before; all that was found of her was her abandoned car on a bridge. James is a loner, really only interacting with people at the grief support group he goes to occasionally. He seems to have found the ideal job for his reclusive proclivities: he works in the basement of a Chicago television station, archiving all their old broadcasts. His interactions with his boss seem to be entirely carried out through Post-It notes (this sounds like my ideal job, too, incidentally; the fewer people I have to talk to over the course of the day, the happier I am).

One day while archiving old footage, James stumbles across a bizarre “broadcast signal intrusion” that interrupted a local newscast back in 1987. If you’ve seen the real-life, iconic viral video titled “I Feel Fantastic,” first posted back in 2004, you’ll get the gist of the content of this video that James finds. The short but unnerving clip features a masked person, or possibly an android, opening and closing their mouth, while all sorts of disturbing and distorted sounds shriek in the background.

James becomes curious enough about this that he does some perfunctory research on a message board, and discovers that there was actually another, similar intrusion that occurred the same year during a broadcast of a scifi show called Don Cronos. The program is this movie universe’s version of Doctor Who, and this is all a direct reference to the real-life broadcast signal intrusion known as the Max Headroom signal hijacking, in which some person as yet unidentified broke into the broadcasts of two Chicago TV stations (once during a newscast, once during an episode of Doctor Who), wearing a Max Headroom mask, swaying around, and talking about Coca-Cola while weird noises buzzed in the background.

I actually really liked the references to real-life events threaded throughout the movie, and things like weird and unexplained YouTube videos are always a fertile ground for this sort of paranoid horror. There was also a funny and pretty obscure allusion sprinkled through the plot, namely that the “android” character appearing in the spooky clips is supposed to be a janky version of a character named Sal-E Sparks, an android housewife from a 1980s sitcom called Stepbot. This is a reference to the real-life (and largely forgotten) 1980s sitcom called Small Wonder, in which the dad of the main family builds an android daughter, for reasons which I can’t recall but don’t suggest anything all that wholesome, if I’m being honest.

When James digs back through the archives to find this particular Don Cronos broadcast, he finds that it’s missing from their library, and his boss gives him a note that says the tape was confiscated by the FCC during their investigation of the incident, and that James should just drop the whole thing. However, he does locate a fan of the show who happened to tape the episode, so he gets to see it firsthand.

James notices that the dates of the two signal intrusions correspond with the days just before the disappearances of two local women. He also finds out that there is a fabled third intrusion, which was supposed to have occurred on the day before his wife vanished. Convinced that there is a connection, he contacts one of the men who was involved in the initial FCC/FBI investigation into the matter. The guy insists that despite a thorough, three-year inquiry, nothing of substance was uncovered, and he tries to talk James out of pursuing this obsession any further, as it will only destroy his life. James, naturally, doesn’t listen, and gets sucked deeper and deeper into the mystery, adamant that not only are the intrusions and the missing women related, but that he is going to be the one to crack the case, even though many people have already tried.

Along his ever-unraveling journey, he comes across another man who went down the same rabbit hole and is now crazed, homeless, and suicidal; a strange woman named Alice (get it?) who follows him around for a while, seemingly for shits and giggles, before eventually helping him in his investigation; and all manner of sketchy people and situations that are left just ambiguous enough that the viewer is never sure if there is truly something nefarious going on, or whether James’s crumbling mental state is finding patterns and connections where there aren’t any.

As I mentioned, this is an intriguing film with a great premise, a cool, noir sensibility (right down to the jazzy, saxophone-heavy score), and some intensely creepy visuals, but the inconclusive ending might leave some people scratching their heads. Did all this stuff really happen, or was it largely in James’s imagination? I’m inclined to believe the latter, and I think the intention of the film was less to serve as a conspiracy-style mystery and more to explore how the psychological fragility engendered by grief can lead a person into unhealthy obsessions as they search for meaning in the meaningless. As a meditation on that, it’s pretty great, but don’t go into this expecting everything to be tied up with a bow; lots of plot threads are left dangling, people figure into the story and then disappear, several strange incidents are left unexplained. If you’re okay with that, then you might want to give it a look, especially if you’re as fascinated as I am by ominous, analog videos with cryptic origins. The movie is in the same ballpark as stuff like The Conspiracy (2012), Censor (2021), and maybe even Berberian Sound Studio (also 2012), so if you like those, you might dig this one too.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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