Working late nights transferring tapes of old broadcasts to disc, James comes across a strange pirate broadcast in the middle of a 1987 newscast. The images in the intrusion are unsettling, to say the least. A person in a mask, who seems to be a woman, stands in the middle of a room for which they seem too tall. The mask looks contorted into an open-mouthed expression of permanent agony. There are no words in this broadcast, only strange, droning sounds. And, as James will soon discover, this isn’t the only broadcast of its kind. If his initial investigative interest is simply curiosity — an easy enough motivation to buy into, it is a creepy tape — a possible personal connection, specifically the disappearance of his wife the day before the rumored final broadcast in 1996, drives James to obsession. Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion is that strong sort of paranoiac thriller more concerned with obsessor than obsession. Though the hunt for the truth itself is never less than compelling, it’s James’ inability to cope with the reality of his grief that materializes as the film’s primary subject. As in many horror movies, there are moments where an audience might want James to stop what he’s doing completely, but in this specific case, such an impulse might be less about fear of unseen horror and more a plea for the character to move on and heal. “Don’t go in there” because you might not find any answers within.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything scary in the plot itself; even outside of the pirate broadcasts, Gentry offers up plenty to unnerve. Most of these scenes are admittedly derivative — an encounter in a basement with a possibly responsible party plays exactly like the nerve-shredding Bob Vaughn scene in Zodiac — but none of these used parts are broken, and Gentry rarely opts for cheap shocks, displaying a confidence in what’s onscreen to do the work. Taken as a whole, the film is suitably eerie throughout and creates a queasy feeling of dread, all as it lurches toward its necessarily unresolved conclusion. That the film’s sustained ambiguity isn’t wielded as a cudgel against James’ crusade is to its credit. Just because James probably won’t find any answers about his wife doesn’t mean he hasn’t uncovered something genuinely sinister, and he can’t be blamed for trying to make order out of chaos, especially as the case takes several dark, violent turns. It’s all reflective of surprisingly sensitive filmmaking that doesn’t make a fool out of James, even as it acknowledges his quest as a fool’s errand.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.