Some phenomena in the world should better remain unexplained, as some searches for the truth lead to uncanny compartments of the mind. If the quest becomes an obsession, there is not much that can hold one from losing the sense of self. Jacob Gentry’s unsettling neo-noir thriller ‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion’ gives a chilling depiction of the margins of the media.
The movie’s story follows James (Harry Shum Jr. delivers a swaying performance in the role of the noir hero), who gets plunged into a rabbit hole after the surfacing of a tape. The quest for truth does not lead him to closure – it instead makes him further deranged. One clue leads to another, but the ending brings him back to square one.
Guided by a cerebral score and painted with technological paranoia, this movie is retrospective of the era of VHS tapes and cable television, when technology was still an agent of paranoia in society. In the wake of the open-ended finale, questions rush into the audience’s minds, as it is difficult to make sense of the movie in hindsight. However, upon further probing, some aspects become clearer. Let us now revisit the final moments of the story in greater detail. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion Plot Synopsis
James has a penchant for the analog visual medium – he repairs cameras and collects old tapes. After the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend Hannah, James also has a blank space in his life. He attends a support group. While checking old tapes, he finds a news broadcast interrupted by a strange video. The video shows a person wearing a latex mask with apparent static noises in the background.
As he probes into the mystery, he finds another tape dated May 10, 1987, during the night broadcast of the show ‘Don Cronos.’ James delves deeper into internet chatrooms to find the name of Dr. Stuart Lithgow, Professor of Media Studies at MIT, who wrote the FBI report of the broadcast intrusions. James visits Dr. Lithgow, who suggests that there may be a third such incident, but there does not remain a tape to confirm it.
Although, the professor’s source believes that the third broadcast intrusion took place on November 23, 1996. The investigation does not lead James far, and he feels pretty out of depth, but that is until he meets the hooded girl named Alice. The so-called Nite Pirates (the name of the hacker group) are seemingly responsible for the disappearances of several women, and James believes that they may have something to do with the disappearance of Hannah.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion Ending: Is Hannah Dead or Alive? Who Is Sal-e Sparks?
Hannah’s disappearance propels James towards the quest, which, in turn, drives the story forward. After contacting the channel for the ‘Don Cronos’ tape, James reaches media geek Chester, whom he knew earlier as a business contact. Although the channel does not have the tape since the authorities confiscated it, Chester has the video in Betamax, which is of better picture quality than VHS. Asking Chester, James comes to know that the inexplicable phenomenon is named the “Sal-e Sparks” incident in niche internet chatrooms, after ‘Stepbot,’ the 80s sitcom.
The sitcom’s story entails a widowed robotic engineer inventing an android wife to take care of his adopted children. Sal-e Sparks is supposedly the inspiration behind the intrusion videos. ‘Sal-e’ stands for System analytic lifeform emulation. James believes that the tapes are concealing some hidden message. James looks for the FBI file containing information about the Sal-e Sparks case.
Dr. Lithgow cannot help James much, but an anonymous phone call leads him to an antique store. He has to deliver a package to a guy in Chinatown. The guy warns James not to veer further into the rabbit hole. Back at home, the file is at the doorstep of James, and he gets a call from Dr. Lithgow. James tries to establish his theory that women go missing a day before the intrusions. The pattern fits, as Hannah went missing the day before the alleged third intrusion.
James’ theory may have some truth, especially since the professor tells him about the third tape. James checks the date tattooed on his wrist – the date of Hannah’s disappearance. Hannah’s car was found in the middle of a bridge. Hannah, however, was nowhere to be found. The day that the incident took place was November 22, 1996, a day before the alleged third tape surfaced.
Frederica Sexton disappeared on the day before the surfacing of the first tape, and such was the fate of Marie Bedford. James finds a pattern here and deduces that the disappearance of Hannah may be linked to a possible psychopath who was also involved in releasing the tapes. Hannah is most possibly dead, or has Hannah changed into a fragment of a memory? Is James missing something here?
In the penultimate moments, James hits a woman with his car. Her android eyes come out of her head, and she bleeds diluted blood. The woman is the android woman from the second video. Can she be Hannah? As it turns out, the static noise of the first tape is a cover for the hidden message – “I fixed them, I fixed them all.” Could the person making the video have made them into these human-machine hybrids?
This reading takes the story to a macabre lane, and it is the kind of horror that gives you shivers. James hitting Hannah with his car can make the story come full circle, but it is a rushed conclusion. Hannah’s final fate, as it is, remains unknown. She may as well be dead, and she may have jumped into the river on the night of November 22. James’ girlfriend, Hannah, presumably took her own life, which is why James attends the support group.
Where Does Alice Go?
Alice is seen following James from his first payphone call. She is the hooded woman that stands on the other side of the street. However, one night, following his rendezvous with Dr. Lithgow, James sees the woman following him, and he walks into a bar. The woman follows James into the bar, and she strikes up a conversation. Alice tells James the story of her affair with Benjamin at an early age. James gets way too drunk, and Alice takes him home.
The following morning, James wakes up to discover Alice deep in her research. She has detected a phone number from the tapes by picking up a morse code. Shortly after, a person stops at his doorstep to give him a phone. James walks down the stairs to find the guy from Chinatown. In a state of terror and delirium, the person slits his throat while James and Alice go on the run. They stay at a motel while Alice discovers that the phone number from the tape is registered to a storage unit in Peoria.
They follow the lead and find the name of the owner of the unit – Stephen Meyer. Stephen Mayer acknowledges making the videos. According to his story, he became interested in broadcast signal intrusions (phreaking) at an early age and made a presentation at school. The Nite Pirates confronted him, and they showed him a life of hedonism. The story is not entirely believable, and James thinks so too. Upon intimidation, they have to leave, but James and Alice brawl after coming back from Stephen Meyer’s place.
Alice leaves the following morning, and James goes back to the antique store to find it sealed by the police. He goes back to his room to find it ransacked, possibly by the Nite Pirates, but the third tape is lying on the floor. Maybe Alice has delivered James the truth. Perhaps she is in league with the Nite Pirates. The guy who takes his own life tells James not to trust women. He also stresses the fact that the Nite Pirates are everywhere.
In the end, the story posits a dichotomy between nostalgia and trauma. Nostalgia brings the past into the present, while the trauma tries to invoke the blank spaces of the past. The meaning is nowhere to be found. We roam across a series of moving images – and meta-images – while the seeming omnipresence of the Nite Pirates in a parallel flow of the mainstream media creates the ultimate horror in the movie.