Transmission begins with a satellite flashing a red light over Earth, and a large radar dish below picking up its signal – which is to say that, as the film’s very title suggests, here the medium is the message, along with its means of distribution.
As text announces that many years ago something strange happened on every television screen, and promises to show what one channel-surfing old man witnessed that night, we are made to realise that this is to be, apart from the scenes right at its beginning and end, a screenlife film – except that instead of switching between windows on a computer screen, it shows in real time what is being broadcast across multiple TV stations, as remixed by one casual – or perhaps not so casual – viewer.
What follows is a serial montage of live news reports (on murder suicides across the city and an armed hostage siege in a woman’s suburban home), a black-and-white sitcom about a married couple struggling to tune in their TV set, a children’s show with puppets doing a jigsaw puzzle, an evangelical preacher talking fire and brimstone, a dumb-assed Eighties teen romance called Nutballs! (somewhere between Say Anything… and Screwballs), porn and ads.
Yet if our unseen viewer is desultory, restless and impatient, there are two related programmes on which he settles the longest: the première screening of the sci-fi horror Transmission, long believed lost but now being introduced by an Elvira-like presenter (Jennifer Nangle) on her show Malvolia’s Movie Madness; and meanwhile, over on Incredibly Strange Movies, a documentary made by Rachel Roth (Nicole Cinaglia) which uncovers the story of her grandfather Frank Tadross Roth (Vernon Wells), the cult (and occult-obsessed) horror director who went missing under mysterious circumstances before his final film Transmission could be completed and released.
“So, are you sure all these pieces are gonna fit together?” wonders an on-screen muppet of the puzzle he is trying to assemble. “Oh they will, I promise,” replies his fellow puppet, “You’ll see.” Anyone who has ever flipped between channels, bleary-eyed in the wee hours, will know the strange experience of cross-talk that can ensue, as the brain synthesises disparate programmes as though they were all presenting a single if fractured narrative customised for and by the holder of the remote control. This is the effect of watching Transmission, whose varied programming starts to echo and blur with maddening metacommentary, as these different shows reflect each other in surprising ways.
Malvolia is not only presenting the film-within-a-film Transmission, but also appears as a talking head in the documentary on its director, while other participants in the documentary will appear on the live news, and all these broadcasts will bleed into each other in an unexpected manner.
Indeed, it is not unlike one of Frank’s films, in which, according to Malviola, “there are usually three or four different storylines that come together in some crazy way, and then they usually build up to some sort of dark, twisted ending.” Even though Frank’s last film, which riffs on Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Paul W.S Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997), is said to have been shot from a script whose last five pages were never written, and is thought never to have been fully filmed, everything here comes with the strong sense of an ending, as numerous signs point to an ominously approaching if unguessable apocalypse which in the end will be duly, yet impossibly, delivered.
There are different traditions (all niche) feeding into writer/director Michael Hurst’s feature. First there is the paradoxical notion of a lost film maudit which, Medusa-like, has a baleful effect on anyone unfortunate to cast eyes upon it. This is an idea explored in the pseudo-documentary features of Fabien Delage’s Fury of the Demon (La rage de démon, 2016) and David Amito and Michael Laicini’s Antrum: The Deadliest Movie Ever Made (2019) – except that here there are layers upon layers of forbidden film, as Hurst’s Transmission, Frank’s Transmission within it, and another illicit piece of video placed within several programmes, all threaten to endanger viewers (including us) with pernicious content that “wants to be seen”.
Second, there is a variation on the haunted broadcasts seen in Lesley Manning’s Ghostwatch (1992), Damien LeVeck’s The Cleansing Hour (2019), Cristian Ponce’s History of the Occult (Historia de lo Oculto, 2020) and Cameron and Colin Cairnes’ Late Night With The Devil (2023) – films where live transmissions either unleash or expose a diabolical underpinning to our mediated reality.
As a long-term genre fan on a transgressive quest for essential horror that gets past cheap thrills and easy catharsis, Frank will – at least up to a point – be a figure of identification for any hardened horror viewers, and his hidden collection of VHS hauls from abroad will seem familiar to anyone who grew up in the Video Nasty era. Even his obsessive search for a film made by Dario Cozzi (Robin Hill), whose very name conflates Italian genre directors Dario Argento and Luigi Cozzi, will be relatable to the very particular audience of Transmission, as will his proselytising desire to have horror seen in everything and by everyone.
Yet in this film, set in the conventionally fictive Californian twilight zone of Santa Mira, it is not just horror viewers, but also the infinite, insatiable emptiness of their desires, that is being revealed. For here we are all seeking answers in the Void, yet finding them in the most unexpected and innocuous places. What greater display could there be of humanity’s worst side than a cavalcade of inane witching-hour viewing? You are, after all, what you choose to watch – and if you choose not to watch Hurst’s (and Frank’s) multimedia feature to its bitter end, you might miss out on one hell of a Lovecraftian punchline – or what Malvolia describes as “the never before seen conclusion”. What self-respecting horrorhound can resist staring into that abyss?
Transmission had its world première at FrightFest 2023 on 26 August