In 1987, some prankster in a Max Headroom mask put out signals that disrupted TV programming in Chicago … blipping enigmatically and cheekily into a news bulletin and an episode of Doctor Who. Technically, this larkish behaviour was a federal crime … which may be why no one has owned up or given an explanation for the singularly pointless feat, though naturally conspiracy theories abound. Set in the late 1990s, this paranoid thriller – which seems modelled on Videodrome – restages the intrusions, using a scene from Dark Shadows to represent Doctor Who knockoff Don Cronos and parodying robo-sit-com Small Wonder in the character of Sal-E Sparx.
James (Harry Shum Jr), who toils underground in an archive transferring footage from one format to another, is haunted by the disappearance of his wife years earlier – rather as the protagonist of Censor is haunted by a missing sister – and gets the idea that the intrusions are part of the same case. He sets out on a quest to get to the bottom of the mystery, with oddly stalkery Alice (Kelley Mack) accompanying him at least part of the way … and various sinister, jittery, speechifying characters popping up to deliver clues that draw him in deeper but don’t really get him much closer to the answers he seeks. The illicit broadcasts, staged by effects man Dan Martin with mask-wearing James Swanton as the Signal Intruder, have a Lynchian feel which doesn’t quite match the jokiness of the original (in which the intruder bares his butt and is spanked by a lady friend).
Scripted by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall (who directed a rough draft short of the same name in 2016) and directed by Jacob Gentry (one of the co-directors of the unrelated 2007 film The Signal), BSI fits in with a run of recent films that obsess over deadtech – Computer Chess and Bereberian Sound Studio are the standouts of the cycle – and also revives the they’re-out-to-get-you feel of 1970s and ‘80s paranoia thrillers that now seem almost innocent in that they were made well before 2020s levels of surveillance, recording and online exposure were conceivable. This is stronger on mood than story – and often perversely dials down the suspense in order to expound on phone phreaking (that used to be a thing) or other matters tangential to the subject at hand.
Here’s the original broadcast signal intrusion – NB: yes, there must have been viewers pissed off they didn’t get to see a chunk of ‘The Horror of Fang Rock’.