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SXSW Film Review: The Creepy ‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion’

A video geek goes in search of the “Night Pirate,” a man who hacked into television broadcasts and may hold the clue to his wife’s mysterious disappearance.

Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion, which received its world premiere last week at SXSW Online, is the kind of film that’s ideal for the Festival’s Midnighter series. Strange and surreal, it has a complicated but fascinating plot.

In 1999 Chicago, James (Glee‘s Harry Shum Jr.) is a technician working the night shift alone in a basement archive, burning DVDs from old broadcast tapes to preserve for future generations. It’s a solitary life that he doesn’t seem to mind.

Since his wife, Hannah, disappeared under mysterious circumstances a few years before, he doesn’t really have any use for other human beings anymore. The only communication he receives is from his employer is via post-it notes concerning what tapes to archive that day. Otherwise, his contact is limited people is the support group he attends with others trying to get a handle on similar heartache. He’s also a true AV geek whose tiny apartment is cluttered with obsolete video hardware from the previous decade.

One night, while he is transferring an old news broadcast, he is startled by an interruption in the tape. A bizarre person appears on snowy black-and-white video, wearing a plastic mask and howling frightfully for a few moments. Then the image returns to the news broadcast. Disturbed but intrigued, James hunts through the archive’s library and finds another video with a similar interruption. It’s so much like the video hacks that occurred in Chicago in 1987 that he is desperate to discover its meaning and origin. The intrusion also mirrors similar dreams he’d recently been having about Hannah.

The 1987 hacks really happened, by the way. A person wearing a Max Headroom mask interrupted a sports segment on WGN-TV and later broke into a broadcast of Dr. Who on PBS affiliate WTTW. While a metallic background rocked behind him, the masked man spoke incoherently for about 90 seconds. Despite an FCC investigation, the culprits were never caught.

Bit by bit, James starts to unravel the mystery. There’s actually a third break-in tape in existence, but it can’t be seen because it was confiscated by the FBI. Another AV enthusiast who is trying to be his friend tells him that he is in possession of a copy of the tape and will let him have it in exchange for one of his precious video cameras.

James also discovers that when the tapes are slowed down, the mysterious figure is actually speaking English. A conspiracy theory begins to take shape, one that includes the possible solution to the disappearance of several women, including his wife. Somebody is trying to prevent him from finding out any more, however.

He reluctantly acquires a sidekick in the form of a young transient named Alice (Kelley Mack), who aids and abets him in his search for the “Night Pirate,” even as circumstances become increasingly bizarre — and physically threatening. So all-consuming is his paranoia that he begins to think that even Alice is in on the conspiracy.

Written by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall (who wrote the short film on which this feature was based), Broadcast Signal Intrusion may prove to be too obscure and frustrating for some viewers. But for those who love mysteries — especially surreal ones — it’s an intriguing trip down the rabbit hole.

Kurt Gardner

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