On a road trip from Cambridge to California, two MIT students, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), along with Nic’s girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke), start getting harrassed by a hacker who previously destroyed one of their school projects. But these guys are just as smart as their antagonizer, who goes by the online handle Nomad. While he’s able to spy on them via their own laptops, they’re able to pinpoint his location in the middle of the Nevada desert.
One quick detour later, and the trio arrives at a spooky, desolate shack in the middle of nowhere. The place is scary and remote enough to make you think “ Wolf Creek!”, climb back inside your car and drive away like Speed Racer. But the two guys are determined to find out who Nomad is and why he has targeted them, so they carefully sneak into the house while Haley waits in the car. Soon, the screaming starts.
That’s all you’ll get here: The Signal is only the second feature directed by William Eubank (the first was 2011’s little-seen Love) and although the film’s plentiful twists have been written about and spoiled since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, its turns of plot are so unexpected that the picture is best approached cold.
Eubank, a former cinematographer, gives the $4 million production a glossy, big-budget sheen that at first seems incongruous with its slasher-horror aura, but eventually proves to be a perfect fit for what’s to come. Working with editor Brian Berdan, Eubank also uses split-second flashbacks (some of them near-subliminal) to fill us in on details without having to force his characters to spout exposition, such as Nic’s early stage of multiple sclerosis, which is never directly addressed in the film even though he uses braces to walk.
The Signal, which was written by Eubank and David Frigerio, has an uncommon respect for the viewer, allowing us to fill in the gaps as the characters’ curious dilemma worsens, and the movie gradually shifts from horror to something different. Thwaites, a rising star who played Prince Charming in Maleficent and who has three other high-profile films pending release, is forced to play a wide range of emotions, from terror to fury, serving as our surrogate as Nic makes his way through this mind-bending narrative maze.
The Signal is too ambitious for its own good: The movie is built on shells of ideas and concepts that haven’t been fully thought out, and once it’s over, the movie collapses the more you think about it. But even if it winds up as a heap of nonsense, The Signal is still a pleasure to watch — a well-acted, beautifully shot and audacious stab at originality and daring in a genre that too often sticks to formula.