This descent-into-apocalyptic-societal-chaos horror picture doesn’t use currently overworked tropes like a Romero-style flesh-eating zombie plague or a 28 days later … type insanity virus. Instead, an inexplicable mutation of the airwaves means television sets (and radios) in a city called Terminus (played by Atlanta, Ga) receive a mystery signal which drives people mad to various degrees, presumably depending on natural susceptibility or exposure. Supernatural interference? The plot of Halloween III: Season of the Witch bouncing back from outer space? A metaphor for the malign power of Fox News? It’s up for debate. Unusually, a trio of writer-directors collaborated by making what are effectively three short films (‘transmissions’) which glue together as episodes in a continuous story (with some time overlaps and multi-viewpoint moments). This accounts for shifts of tone and quality which mean the movie doesn’t quite live up to its opening sequences (as it happens, a common fault even among catastrophe films with only one director) but it’s still a bold, unusual picture – and the first-timers play pass-the-plot parcel much better than the more famous folks who made the Chinese film Triangle on the same principle.
The lurch from sombre, edgy horror into black sit-com a third of the way in is jarring but sets up situations and scenes which work. After a prologue which purports to be a snippet from a 1970s-look torture porn horror interrupted by the signal, David Bruckner’s Transmission I: Crazy in Love starts with Maya Denton (Anessa Ramsey) getting out of bed late at night and leaving her musician lover Ben (Justin Welborn) to return to the apartment she shares with her jealous husband Lewis (A.J. Bowen). Two of Lewis’s buddies are annoyed because they’ve come over to watch a baseball game and the bigscreen TV is showing a blobby visual drone (a disorienting effect) but Lewis is still on the ball enough to grill his wife about where she’s been. An early, unsettling encounter with a some jittery folks (one bleeding) in a parking structure introduces a series of vignettes of signal-affected people going mad or the unwary becoming their victims. As the situation in the flat (where a baseball bat is a key prop) gets out of control, Maya flees outside to find one of her neighbours strolling down the corridor snipping folks throats’ with garden shears. The next morning, lots of people are dead and others mad, and Maya is briefly stuck with Rod (Sahr Nguajah), a friend of Lewis’s who may or may not be affected but is hysterical and perhaps dangerous either way (he doesn’t last long).
Jacob Gentry’s Transmission II: The Jealousy Monster introduces broader, more obviously caricature types – Anna (Cheri Christian), who has had to kill her signal-affected husband, but is still preparing a New Year’s Eve party, and her panicky but opportunist landlord Clark (Scott Polythress). Lewis, an exterminator, invades Anna’s home, looking for Maya (who has told Clark where she’s going) and everyone starts seeing everyone else as who they want them to be rather than who they are – Anna dances with Clark thinking he’s her husband, while Lewis sees them together and is enraged because he thinks Anna is the unfaithful Maya. The first desperate visitor gets her face pounded in by Lewis’s chemical tank on general principles, then Jim (Chad McKnight) arrives, unaware the city is in anarchy, just hoping to hook up at the party, hilariously deadpanning about his lacklustre sex life and previous party miseries.
There’s less of a mood swing for Dan Bush’s Transmission III: Escape from Terminus, which gets wilder – Clark drills into Rod’s severed head and attaches electrodes in an attempt to get the dead man to reveal Maya’s location (which, in his mind at least, the head does) – before returning to the triangle as Maya is taped to a chair at the railway station in front of a bank of signal-beaming televisions, mind burning out as Lewis and Ben fight over her. Considering the range of acting styles, the no-name cast all manage to make an impact, with especially good work from Ramsey (whose relative absence from parts two and three is a shame) and Bowen (whose slow boil suggests a man on the way to insanity even before the signal strikes). There are moments of fairly extreme splat (some involving corrosive bug spray) but the film stretches to subtler, seen-in-the-distance horrors and a general air of post-modern malaise. Blaming the boob tube for the apocalypse isn’t new but in the current multi-channel, media-saturated world makes increasing sense.