As someone who grew up in the Chicagoland area, I have vague memories of there being a discussion of what would become known as the “Max Headroom Incident,” but never actually saw either of the videos in question until a few years ago. But this real-life occurrence that involved both WGN and WTTW getting their feeds hijacked with a Headroom impersonator has continued to be a mystery after all these years (the hackers were never caught), as well as a bit of technological folklore for anyone growing up in Illinois during that time. It also serves as the inspiration behind the latest feature film from Jacob Gentry, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, which is loosely based on those incidents, but utilizes far more horrific imagery as the means of crafting a tension-fueled tech thriller that managed to creep me out in ways I wasn’t expecting.
BSI follows James (Harry Shum Jr.), who works as a video archivist and during one of his shifts, he comes across an unsettling broadcast intrusion involving someone wearing an android-esque mask looking terrified, with garbled audio in the background. James finds himself immediately obsessed with the footage, and that preoccupation only grows once he finds yet another signal intrusion that’s staged the same way, but with potentially a different person underneath the mask. Unable to shake off the disquieting imagery, or the fact that the perpetrators had never been caught, James sets out to find the truth behind these Broadcast Signal Intrusions, and he’s not prepared at all for the sinister rabbit hole filled with ne'er-do-wells he’s about find himself falling down, culminating with a shocking and horrifying finale that pushes James to his limits.
But James doesn’t embark on his journey alone. Along the way, he crosses paths with Alice (Kelley Mack), who wants to help him put the pieces of the puzzle together, and they set out to do their own Scooby-Doo investigation that takes them to all sorts of odd corners of the state of Illinois (which admittedly, only made me miss my home state even more than I already do), which was pretty fun since most Illinois-set films tend to stick to certain suburbs or the city of Chicago.
While sometimes its own mystery ends up bogging down a bit of the film’s momentum, Broadcast Signal Intrusion is still a highly effective suspense-filled thriller that feels like Gentry tipping his hat to Zodiac as well as Brian De Palma, and yet, still sets out to do its own thing as well. Even though the script was written by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall, I love how many of Gentry’s films have a bit of a science fiction bent to them, as he’s always done a great job of demonstrating through these movies the insidious nature of technology and how that can intersect with the human condition. And Broadcast Signal Intrusion keeps that tradition alive. Plus, setting the film in 1999, which is when the world was contending with the Y2K hysteria, feels right in line with the paranoia that continuously builds throughout BSI, specifically through the character of James and the encounters he has while trying to solve this mystery.
Also, it’s worth noting that cinematographer Scott Thiele’s muddied and desaturated palette does wonders for Broadcast Signal Intrusion, setting a perfectly moody stage for James’ path of discovery in the film. There’s a real texture to how he utilizes his lens here, and it works exceptionally well in keeping viewers immersed in James’ world of uncertainty.
While the momentum definitely dips in the latter half of the film, things pick up big time in the last 15 minutes of Broadcast Signal Intrusion, and those are moments that are going to stick with me for quite a long time. It may not seem like it from the description I used earlier, but the sequences involving the masks in the film provide BSI with unforgettable imagery that will also probably haunt me for years to come. Seriously, kudos to Dan Martin for creating such simple but disquieting masks that are pure nightmare fuel.
Movie Score: 4/5
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[Image Credit: Harry Shum Jr. in Broadcast Signal Intrusion, courtesy of Queensbury Pictures.]