Debuting at this year’s Popcorn Frights, Distress Signals is the writing and directing team of Terence Krey and Christine Nyland’s follow-up to the unsettling slow-burn horror film An Unquiet Grave. This time around they’ve chosen a more realistic, but no less unnerving, topic to explore, wilderness survival.
While out camping with friends Caroline (Christine Nyland) goes off for a hike by herself and takes a fall off an embankment dislocating her shoulder. Ably to briefly talk to her friend Lauren (Stephanie Hains) before she loses signal, Caroline is assured the guys are out looking for her. But when nobody shows up she’s forced to try to find her own way out of the woods.
Krey and Nyland get Distress Signals off to a conventional enough start, Caroline wanders through the woods, her very meager supplies running out and her phone’s battery dying. A helicopter flies overhead but she can’t get its attention. The staples of a wilderness survival film. But that’s it, unlike say Body at Brighton Rock, there’s no bear lurking in the darkness. There’s no overt external threat of any kind to add excitement to the proceedings beyond the occasional odd noises at night, something unseen moving in the undergrowth, etc. But anyone who’s been camping knows that’s nothing unusual.
Scenes of Caroline frantically calling for help give way to her floating in a lake, staring up at the starry sky. As they do cinematographer Daniel Fox (Graves, Motion Picture Martyr) catches the beauty of the forest combined with the score by Shaun Hettinger (Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Chelsea) make much of Distress Signal’s first hour feel like a tranquil walk in the woods.
It’s not until the last act when she encounters a hunter (Terence Krey) that Distress Signals starts to have a sinister feel to it. But just as you think you’ve figured it out, it takes a final twist that ties a few seemingly out-of-place scenes, as well as the title’s figurative as well as literal meanings, together. It’s actually a fairly impressive bit of scripting.
Many viewers, even those who liked An Unquiet Grave, will find Distress Signals too slow of a burn for their tastes. And that’s understandable, it’s not what you expect from this kind of film. It’s a more cerebral take on the subject and one that doesn’t fully make sense until near the end. It’s as much about the mental aspects of survival as it is the physical struggle for it. and that’s not going to be for everyone.
The main problem I had with this is that the slower pace means the events of the final act felt a bit sudden and rushed to me. I’d have rather seen Distress Signals get to that point a bit earlier and let the suspense build a bit longer to make the payoff more satisfying.
For a low-budget film that was shot almost entirely by its cast while living on location in the woods of Massachusetts during the pandemic, Distress Signals looks and sounds like it had a much bigger crew. But none of that would have mattered if Christine Nyland hadn’t been able to deliver the kind of performance that keeps the viewer’s attention even during the slower moments. Apart from Krey’s hunter who has maybe twenty minutes of screen time, Caroline is the film’s only real character and she really sells the film. Hopefully, this will lead to more roles for her.
Distress Signals premieres on August 18th at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival. I’m fairly sure it will be playing other festivals as well, you can check Terence Kray’s Twitter for announcements of screenings for it and his upcoming film Summoners. And while you wait for its release, FilmTagger can suggest something similar.