'Broadcast Signal Intrusion' Review: An Ambitious Thriller Whose Creepy Reach Exceeds Its Grasp [SXSW 2021]

Jacob Gentry's evolution as a filmmaker remains fixated on electromagnetic waves (outside MTV's My Super Psycho Sweet 16 franchise) in the SXSW premiere Broadcast Signal Intrusion. It's a clash of science fiction imagery and novice sleuthing, as Possessor-reminiscent masked interruptions splice between '90s television programming until narrative beats transform into something more tensely true crime. At the core of Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall's screenplay? A ponderous assessment of media corruption and fame-chasing criminals. However, their means of subgenre hybridization sometimes fails the overall intrigue of a widower's grief-sullen inquisition. There are camcorder moments that unsettle, almost as The Poughkeepsie Tapes accomplishes with its evidence footage, and yet clue-seeking thrills sell desired excitement short.As Gentry pushes audiences into the unknown of FCC regulations and "narrowcasting" rebels who hijack affiliate airtime, that "unknown" stays a bit too far out of reach once narrative motivations clarify through tracking fuzz.

Harry Shum Jr. stars as James, a Chicagoan video archivist who stumbles upon disturbing footage from yesteryear's unsolved broadcast interruptions. James can't shake what he's seen—humans in rubber facial coverings meant to resemble "Sal-E Sparx," from the cheesetastic sitcom Stepbot. What should be a write-off anomaly becomes James' newest obsession, possibly just to distract from lingering sadness since his wife's disappearance. As James dissects the footage, his world complicates between stalkers-turned-partners (Alice, played by Kelley Mack) and "Phreakers" (one played by Chris Sullivan) who chase the high of titular signal intrusions. Could everything tie to his wife's vanishing act? Or is a distraught, shattered man grasping at digitized straws.

Gentry draws inspiration from actual broadcast interruptions that plagued Chicago in the 80s—still no answers—and creates a chilling vision as faux Don Cronos episodes become windows into something maniacal. A woman stands in-frame, the aforementioned mask a mix of Michael Myers and curly wig locks, mimicking robotic motions as this Sel-E Sparx ripoff. It's unsettling to behold, and while ambiguous, Gentry's direction assures viewers they're watching footage with nastier undertones. The outdated recording device zooms in on the director's malformed creation, pulling back "flesh" to reveal animatronics or blood spurts from the entity's oblong mouth. As James pours over the found footage, Gentry balances cryptic inexplicability with snuff intent—Broadcast Signal Intrusion is never better.The detective arc James and Alice (eventually) chase becomes more problematic, where James' cleverness as an aching archivist somehow trumps a year's worth of FBI investigations. I'm not crying "plot hole," not in the slightest, but it's more how puzzle pieces zap into place and how faces in window reflections or embedded codes are revealed by the desk jockey, not government specialists. Now, it's undoubtedly a scripted choice because of James' vested interest as he closes on the intrusion's source versus lawmen who couldn't be bothered—and yet, this decision cheapens the overall suspense. Characters saunter into perspective, delaying the inevitable, while obvious details within the videos might as well be neon signs towards James' ultimate finale showdown. There's an imbalance between the abject horror of trolls invading society via mass media and James' deeply traumatic examination in a way that doesn't snugly align.Then there are the accompanying cinematic aspects Gentry stitches together. Ben Lovett's score provokes this subtle but noticeable gumshoe noir soundtrack, which tonally identifies half the subgenre split of Broadcast Signal Intrusion. Scott Thiele's cinematography works with the grimiest, home-studio crustiness or secretive back-alley encounters while editing cuts frantically between characters who are on-edge, emphasizing the skittishness required for untrustworthy exchanges. Although, comparatively, it's hard to ignore how Gentry's strongest unification of these elements occurs when dread reaches its maximum. There is no slight to Shum Jr., Mack, or any of the other bit players here who are serving calculated moments, yet underserved in the grander picture.Broadcast Signal Intrusion is a tale of despicableness, hubris, and societal anarchy that lives unchecked. At the same time, it's a combination of redemption and revenge, even a meditation on loss. Jacob Gentry's in control of something ambitious that I'd refrain from dubbing anything near a disaster, still acknowledging its narrative hiccups. It'll speak loudest to fans of serial killer podcasts with a secondary interest in technological phenomenons, those rooted in perceivable villainy. Never an outright showcase of talents that we know exist—however, something genre fans might applaud for its throwback curiosity as reclamation and ruination become one with new-age pirate menaces./Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10