[Popcorn Frights] DISTRESS SIGNALS Review – Wilderness Survival Horror is an Allegory for Depression
Megan Borns says Distress Signals shows a surprising, on-the-nose depiction of mental illness and recovery.
Getting lost in the woods is a particularly harrowing fear, whether or not one prepares for such an event. It can lead to never being found, producing a frightful backdrop for horror. Distress Signals is an indie horror film from co-directors, writers, producers, and actors Terence Krey and Christine Nyland. The two wear many hats and craft a surprisingly heartfelt and impactful narrative about mental illness cloaked as a wilderness survival horror.
When Caroline (Nyland) falls down a ravine after hiking alone and cannot call for help or find a safe way out, she faces a brutal truth: she is stranded and must figure out how to survive until she makes her way out of the forest, or until help arrives. Caroline faces the real possibility of death at every moment, from the dwindling food reserves and water to the steadily decreasing battery in her serviceless phone and walkie-talkie. There is no way to contact the friends she came with, and with no map, Caroline forges on into the unknown. Soon plagued by a distinct sense that something is lurking just out of reach and stalking her every move, Caroline begins her struggle to live off the land.
After days of continual movement, Caroline happens the means to keep her alive for a short time. She finds the river she was looking for, berry bushes, and a way to create fire. So excited by her newfound prospects, she is stunned to see a hunter appear out of nowhere. He introduces himself as James (Krey) and offers her food and shelter back at his camp, but something about him seems off. Caroline mistrusts him, steals his map of the woods, and gets as far away from him as fast as possible.
The film is at times slow and hard to justify as genuinely frightening. However, once the third act reaches its climax, the true artistry of foreshadowing shines through. Without the buildup, the payoff would not have been so acutely jaw-dropping. What is initially dismissed as lackluster is an elaborate and engaging metaphor for the cycle of depression that isolation can breed. A flashback to Caroline hiking with friends unravels the whole picture. John (Jonathon Strauss) catches her absentmindedly contemplating a nearby cliffside and is startled to think that perhaps she is suicidal and recruits the rest of their friends to keep a covert eye on her. Catching the group talking about her, Caroline sets off alone to clear her mind, and that is where the film catches up to the beginning and her fall.
In allegorical physical detail, we get a glimpse of how the emotions of a depressive episode can feel. The dwindling supplies and exhaustion that comes with securing basics—like food and water and the lingering thoughts of giving up and saving oneself all the trouble of surviving are great depictions of symptoms. Depression and healing are not easy—Krey and Nyland demonstrate their intimate knowledge with this narrative feature. Healing, in slow increments, can eventually follow listlessness, as indicated by the discovery of water, food, and the means to start a fire. Caroline struggles through rain and multiple failed attempts to create her gathered grass on fire. Eventually, she lights the fire after diligent work—it’s a joyful scene to watch, full of energized music and celebration.
Then, again, she relapses. Caroline comes face to face with the demons that have hounded and stalked her just out of reach. James is terrifying in his ambiguity, and even as he seems to be helping her, she cannot trust his presumed kindness. Just as depression can be comforting and healing a struggle, it does not mean that falling back into a depressive routine is what will save a person. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring part of the film was the very end. Caroline walks one step at a time toward civilization after saving herself. She is her own savior, who found the necessary path to recovery.
As briefly mentioned, the music and sound design are some simple elements that help glue the film together. They highlight every character's mood and circumstance in a compelling, simplistic way. Brian Goodheart and Shaun Hettinger create the perfect backdrop of woodland sounds punctuated with tenseness. The most powerful message, underlined by wonderfully subtle sound design, is that Caroline is the one to fight past the direly painful struggles into safety and peace of mind, back to health, one step at a time.
Distress Signals world premiered at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival on August 18, 2022.