Let’s be real, everyone loves a good mystery. Thankfully, the world is in no shortage of them for people looking to fill that void. You know, the ones who once had a dream of becoming the next Sherlock Holmes. Many on the internet like to think that dream has become a reality, with how quickly a crime story or bizarre piece of media can spread online, flooding message boards and social media with discussion. We’re naturally drawn to try and peel back the layers of what we find frightening from the safety of our own home, searching for clues to debunk the creepy video or photo of the week. Broadcast Signal Intrusion is a film that uses that concept and takes it back to a simpler time, the “wild west” days of the internet where not everything was just a click away and the true crime community was in its chatroom infancy.
James (Harry Shum Jr.) is a techno-gremlin, working as a video archivist for a local TV station in late-90’s Chicago. When not working long hours in the dark, under a boss who only communicates with sticky-notes, he spends his time fixing old tech and reminiscing about a lost partner. His reclusive life, takes a turn though when going through footage from 1987 for a format transfer. He stumbles upon a phreaking hack in the middle of the evening news, that depicts footage of a crude, uncanny, masked figure speaking gibberish. Following a hunch, James begins looking into the hack and a similar one from the same time period, with rumors of a third that was never confirmed. The rabbit hole only becomes deeper, as James finds a connection between the hacks and the disappearance of his loved one. With very little help, James must rely on his media analysis skills to peel back the mask. But will he be satisfied with what he finds?
Coming from Jacob Gentry, one of the segment directors for the underrated anthology film, The Signal, Broadcast Signal Intrusion’s strength lies in its commitment to recreating the tech landscape of 1999, the literal transition where analog was beginning to phase out in favor of digital formatting. But various old-school formats are implemented well, for those who are nostalgic for the VHS and Betamax formats of yesteryear, with that familiar static hum present. Cinematographer, Scott Thiele creates a believably cold landscape out of the pockets of Chicago the film digs through. Care is even put into recreate the late 80’s TV series Doctor Who, and Small Wonder. This is an honest level of authenticity present when trying to recreate the “Max Headroom Incident.” There is genuine unease when the phreaking hacks are playing out, and should also ring a bell to anyone who stumbled upon videos of Tara the Android, or ShayeSaintJohn in late 2000’s YouTube.
However, the film falls short of delivering on scares, with long stretches where it doesn’t feel like a horror film. After a few times hearing the saxophone beats in Ben Lovett’s score and the cryptic messages of “stop looking,” you realize this is aiming more for late 90’s film noire, in the vein of Se7en and 8mm. The film realizes it’s not scary enough and peppers in a couple of dream/nightmare sequences to varying results. One of which actually doesn’t work in the context of where it was placed, and would have been more effective if it played after the inciting incident. There are definitely some questionable editing and pacing choices throughout the film. Dialogue and sound effects are placed over footage that doesn’t show the action happening, and familiar suspense tactics, like seeing a figure quickly move in the shadows, are injected too quickly to register tension. There are even scenes that just abruptly end and barely make an impact on the overall plot, one in particular being a crucial scene at the third act where the plot begins to come together. The sound design is definitely building to a bigger reveal during this effectively tense scene, but it frustratingly doesn’t pay off. For every scene that successfully conveys the paranoia of being watched is a scene that cuts away.
On the casting side, Harry Shum Jr. is a serviceable lead as James but doesn’t quite run the gambit of the obsessed detective. He never quite breaks out of the emotional rut his character starts in despite the excitement of finally getting on the trail he’s searching for. He honestly pales in comparison to some of the side characters. An FCC lead who James encounters at various points, played by Steve Pringle, is actually one of the stand-out characters of the film. This man’s presence really works with the story to where you wish HE was the lead. What’s even crazier to see is that his only other acting credit was an uncredited zombie on Z Nation, but this is one of those characters you wish was written more into the story. Kelly Mack’s secondary lead is properly introduced maybe a little later than she should have. She’s doing a great job as the sidekick who figures out that one thing that gets the plot to its next step, but her character could have actually been combined with another character in James’ support group who gets two scenes before being dropped from the plot. That character at least would have been a more believable investment with our lead. When you take these two and put them up against recognizable genre faces like Michael B. Woods, Chris Sullivan, and indie horror mainstay Justin Welborn, the leads pale in comparison.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion is a film that feels incomplete. Yes, a good mystery does leave questions unanswered, but are at least left for the viewer to find their own answers (the reward of solving it yourself), but this film is one missed opportunity after another. One of those films where you see what could have been. But like the aforementioned videos it takes inspiration from, it becomes less frightening as more information is revealed. The concept is there, and is probably worthy of a limited series, which would have given the filmmakers more freedom than the film seems to present. You can definitely appreciate the film’s visuals and its attention to detail, but the moments that work are underused and overshadowed by a slow, uninvested, burn.
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