★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Terence Krey and Christine Nyland
Distress Signals is a micro-budget survival thriller, done simply, and executed well. This is a lost in the woods scenario, a story that we can all identify with. In its simplicity though, I found myself wishing there was more dramatic tension and more visceral threat. As thrillers go, this is more solitary drama than thrills.
Christine Nyland plays Caroline Hale, a woman who at the beginning of the movie is found lying face down in a wooded ravine, having fallen from a rocky escarpment, and now finds herself needing to find her way out of her predicament, with a wounded shoulder. She wanders her way out of the ravine and gets thoroughly lost.
Short on food and supplies, she proves to be a good improviser. She also still had some cell battery life left, and managed to get a garbled message out, but she put a brave face on while being scolded for not being more careful when in the woods, and she didn’t let on as to how dire her predicament was. Following that message, she failed to make contact again… but she wasn’t completely unprepared.
Her expected rescuers don’t come after several days of wandering, and worse yet, she is not alone in the forest. Unbeknownst to her, there is a creeper, James (Terence Krey) who has been following her, which is a third-act drama escalation.
As a survival drama, this pretty much succeeds. She makes some really smart decisions and some really dumb ones. You enjoy seeing her evaluate her situation and work through her plans. You smile for her hard-earned victories and feel relief when she finds the right objects at the right time. “Yes! That’s what I would have done!” But, there is a bit of trial end error, and despite her cleverness, Caroline doesn’t catch every break.
There were some convenient Deus Ex Machina elements that felt like the plot was put on railroad tracks, though. I found it strange that she didn’t try and back-track along the ravine to where she had taken her fall to retrace her steps. The other thing would have been to remain at the location where she was able to get a signal out and keep trying on her cell phone, at least until it ran out of juice. A flashback sequence later in the movie helps to set her emotional state a bit better, which suggests why she didn’t opt for the obvious path out, not wanting to face what may be waiting for her back at camp.
Two big looming questions formulate the closing of the arc of this story. One: Is the creeper truly dangerous, or merely a little odd?
Two: How did Caroline end up in this predicament in the first place? Does she have some underlying secrets?
The answers to these questions are reasonably satisfying, as it helps tie a bow around the narrative. However, for horror fans, this felt like a movie with light footprints. James was creepy but not outright frightening. If there was any evidence of what he was capable of or anything criminal that he had done other than being a lonely weirdo, that would have upped the horror factor for sure. It also might have made it a bit more cliched, but the peaks of this movie were more rolling hills than jagged peaks of excitement.
There were moments where I felt some pity for James, even if he was emanating a “trying too hard loner” vibe to him. Perhaps, or more than likely, a woman watching this would have a much deeper fear of the situation than I did, as creeper vibes certainly hit women more deeply than men and those loner vibes flash bright red flags.
Terence Krey and Christine Nyland are constant collaborators and have been working together on several projects now. They also did almost everything on this film, directing, writing, producing, and starring in it. Their first feature outing An Unquiet Grave also didn’t quite strike the horror nail on the head. The film is beautifully shot, and perhaps the idyllic woodland setting seemed more sylvan and inviting than ominous and overpowering. There was a sense after a while that perhaps Christine would, having had a string of successes, just go feral and live out in the woods. But then James came along and ruined everything.
Distress Signals is not yet rated, and is working its way through the festival circuit. It had its world premiere at the 2022 Popcorn Frights Film Festival on August 18, so it is likely to be on the circuit for a while before it hits streaming. It’s an engaging film, with a likable protagonist lead you can root for, but in the end, it could have used some more shock value.