Chicago: November 22, 1987. At the sports segment of WGN-TV’s 9 pm news, someone donning a Max Headroom mask broke onto the airwaves, swaying erratically alongside an odd buzzing sound. The odd moment lasted some 25 seconds. Around two hours later, the Max Headroom mask-wearing individual hijacked yet another broadcast, this time for around 90 seconds during a PBS-affiliate airing of Doctor Who. The second broadcast was filmed in front of shifting corrugated metal, mocking local newscasters and making odd references with a distorted voice. Then…. silence. To this day, the culprits involved were never found.
It’s incidents like this which seem the clear inspiration for Director Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion, written by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall (who themselves wrote and directed the 2016 short Broadcast Signal Intrusion). The film stars Glee alum Harry Shum Jr. as AV tech professional James living a solitary life in late 1990’s Chicago.
Since losing his wife Hannah three years prior, James leads a sad and solitary life of logging TV broadcast videos for posterity and attending a support group for people missing loved ones. One day, he encounters a news program interrupted by a strange figure speaking strangely while wearing a plastic mask, setting him on an investigatory path that connects a series of unsolved ‘broadcast signal intrusions’ to unsolved missing persons cases… and possibly that of his wife.
The script as a whole is a smartly written exercise in tension and paranoia, with an increasing sense of danger and suspicion as James dives deeper into the metaphorical rabbit hole. It’s an interesting noir-style thriller, with Shum serving well as a smart, brooding loner on a hell-bent mission to get to the bottom of a murderous mystery. He gives a strong performance that carries the film (and his later interactions with Kelley Mack’s ‘Alice’ have a strong dynamism in their strange relationship).
The noir vibes are amplified by composer Ben Lovett’s exceptional moody-urban score that echoes old-school giallo and neo-noir sounds. It’s the perfect soundtrack to drive down LA’s neon streets at midnight, and certainly the right score to hear while investigating nefarious happenings under a rainy overpass. Scott Thiele’s cinematography also ably echoes that moodiness and produces quite a few stunning shots. The ‘broadcast signal intrusions’ in question also have that late-90’s video-tape-horror vibe down pat, adding strong elements to the standard noir investigation elements in a novel touch, and Gentry’s direction maintains a strong and engaging tone throughout.
Altogether, Broadcast Signal Intrusion is an excellent neo-noir film with some well executed horror-thriller elements. It has some minor pacing and structural issues, lagging rather noticeably between the midpoint and the third act. Just the same, it’s an effective noir-thriller with a strong central performance, smart direction and cinematography choices, and a flawless noir score—a journey absolutely worth taking and unlike almost anything you’ll find these days.