Shortwave Review

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Ex Machina Meets Event Horizon

Director and writer Ryan Gregory Phillips makes a promising debut with Shortwave, an indie sci-fi thriller dripping with psychological tension and a handful of truly scary moments. Looking into the origins of shortwave radio frequencies, a scientist’s wife begins to get affected by mysterious alien signals in their isolated, remote home. Pulling elements from Ex Machina and Paul W.S. Anderson’s frighteningly underrated Event Horizon, Shortwave effectively weaves moments of horror and suspense in this fundamentally psychological thriller.

Josh (Cristobal Tapia Montt, The Stranger) and his partner Thomas (Kyle Davis) are research scientists for the Marconi Corporation. They have discovered hidden signals in their shortwave radio research that indicates aliens are sending mysterious communication signals to Earth. They are trying to decipher this communication for possible contact. Josh works out of a remote, isolated home provided to him by the company. Fitted with all the latest tech, it’s a virtual fortress allowing nothing in or out when the security system is engaged. That will play a role when all is said and done.

Josh lives with his emotionally disturbed wife, Isabel (Juanita Ringeling, The ABCs of Death). Their young daughter was abducted several years ago and Isabel has never gotten over her daughter’s disappearance. She survived a suicide attempt two years ago but remains deeply unhappy, often remaining in bed for hours and staying indoors all day. Isabel begins experiencing memories and fractured visions of her daughter, possibly as a result of the alien signals discovered in Josh’s research. She could be a conduit for the signals.

As Isabel’s behavior becomes more and more erratic, Josh and Thomas wonder if the alien signals are influencing her or she’s simply having another nervous breakdown. They push the envelope studying the situation, even as it becomes apparent the mysterious beings using the shortwave radio frequencies have malevolent intentions towards Isabel. Are the beings trying to use her as a portal for something more sinister than finding her daughter?

There are some fantastically scary scenes for a low-budget production…

Ryan Gregory Phillips’ movie has an eerie vibe with creepy antagonists that always remain on the periphery. For a debut his direction is remarkably assured and confident. His slick visual storytelling foretells a great future in horror filmmaking with its rich atmosphere. He understands when to pull the curtain back and when to keep things hidden. It outshines the rather pedestrian script, which feels underwritten in places.

The movie has to rely more on Juanita Ringeling’s fine lead performance as the vulnerable wife than clever dialogue and well-plotted suspense for its moody entertainment. Shortwave is a small, intimate production taking place almost entirely inside a modernistic home loaded with the latest hi-tech security. You could practically turn it into a stage play with the right special effects.

Josh and Isabel take up most of the plot’s focus, particularly Isabel’s struggle coping with her emotional problems, dealing with increasingly horrific glimpses of something sinister coming for her. As Isabel’s visions get more disturbing and threatening, the stress between Josh and her leads to a somewhat predictable outcome. There are some fantastically scary scenes for a low-budget production supposedly made for under $400,000.

Shortwave isn’t the most clever sci-fi thriller but it certainly has its moments of pure terror, even if the final act and its twists are a bit of a let-down. The slower first act promises so much with its stylish direction and capable acting. Shortwave does become a rather standard genre exercise when push comes to shove. If you are looking for a thoughtfully constructed scarefest that doesn’t pull its punches and offers solid acting performances, Shortwave is the rare horror-science-fiction hybrid that works.

Shortwave is available on DVD with a slipcover and most digital movie providers.

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