Broadcast signal intrusion isn’t just a mouthful of words. It’s an event that involves the hijacking of real-time broadcasts, like your radio or TV. In real life, these incidents have largely involved things like Christians interrupting Playboy broadcasts to condemn the sins of pornography or a dude wearing a Max Headroom mask infiltrating two Chicago TV stations while being spanked by a French maid. Many of these incidents, including the Max Headroom one, remained unsolved to this day. It’s events like these that writing duo Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall (“How to Disappear Completely”) drew inspiration from for their 2016 short film “Broadcast Signal Intrusion.”
Now adapted into a feature film under the directorial hand of Jacob Gentry (“Synchronicity”), “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” takes a decidedly more disturbing turn than Christian evangelism or French maid foreplay ever did. James (Harry Shum Jr., “All My Life”) is a loner living in 1999 Chicago. He’s a camera and video nerd who works late hours logging broadcast footage all by himself in the basement of a video archive. In his free time, he repairs cameras and gets deliriously depressed watching old home videos of his missing wife.
This dreariness is interrupted by one thing: noir music. Cued in by the score, Harry stumbles upon something altogether un-boring: an eerie broadcast signal intrusion in old archive footage of ill-proportioned, robotic figures spewing black blood and staticky gibberish (the echoes of Max Headroom are strong).
Bewitched, James begins prodding. He finds that this was one of a few broadcast signal intrusions perpetuated in the late ’80s and early ’90s that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Communications Commission investigated to no avail. His curiosity turns to obsession when he uncovers a maddening personal connection involving his wife’s disappearance.
The dominoes are set up. You get the creepypasta-esque chills. You get the paranoid detective. You get the scent of blood on the wind. Sallying forth to the tune of noir trumpets, those dominoes wobble and wobble. “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” winds up being about as cryptic as the intrusions with which James is transfixed. Reasons, motivations and explanations are obfuscated to create an uncertain atmosphere.
The only problem is that everything else is uncertain too, down to basic plot elements. For example, James’s primary crime-solving partner is Alice (Kelley Mack, “Long Distance Trip”), a woman escaping a toxic relationship who stalks James for fun and knows morse code but also might somehow be related to the conspiracy at hand. Her introduction and departure are beats that just have to be rolled with.
The obfuscation certainly works. You’re never quite sure exactly of what sort of conspiracy is afoot. Is there a serial killer loose? Some sort of deep state cover-up? Are things about to take a turn for the supernatural, à la “The Ring”? Hints and clues and a bounteous catch of red herrings are hoisted upon the viewer pointing in any of these directions. For a while, this supports a reasonable amount of tension and intrigue. But the build-up is for naught, as the climax comes to a feeble conclusion that the viewer has to accept with a perfunctory “okay.”
It’s no disaster by any stretch of the word. It’s creepy. It’s mysterious. Harry Shum Jr. is great. But in the end, that “okay” says it all.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.