Transmissions to Earth:
THE LAST BROADCAST (1998)
Review by L.L. Soares
With the recent boom of fake documentaries (otherwise known as “found footage” movies), especially in the horror genre (the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, CLOVERFIELD, THE LAST EXORCISM, etc.), THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) constantly pops up in conversation as the influential flick that started this all. And it deserves the attention. The flurry of excitement that surrounded BLAIR WITCH when it first came out was sure to inspire a lot of would-be filmmakers. But a year before BLAIR WITCH, we got THE LAST BROADCAST (1998), which dabbled in this style first, and also shares a lot of similarities with a certain Blair Witch.
Directed and written by Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler, THE LAST BROADCAST begins with filmmaker David Leigh (David Beard) introducing himself and his movie, which is made up of footage from several sources, starting with a cable access show called “Fact or Fiction,” starring Steven Avkast (Stefan Avalos), who also goes by “Johnny,” and Locus Wheeler (Lance Weiler). Their show explores paranormal phenomenon, but it didn’t really get much in the way of viewers until they decided to hook up a voice response system to their computer, so people could type questions and the voice would speak them aloud on the show. This little bit of audience response is enhanced by the fact that the computerized voice that reads the questions sounds rather spooky. One of the viewers, through this system, suggests they investigate the legend of the Jersey Devil.
Steven and Locus get the idea to film a live show in the middle of the New Jersey Pine Barrens; their plan being to exploit the Jersey Devil legend for big ratings that will maybe get the show out of cable access and into the big time. To help them out on their little camping trip into the middle of nowhere, the hosts bring along sound man Rein (pronounced “Ryan”) Clackin (Rein Clabbers), and a “psychic” that Rein knows named Jim Suerd (Jim Seward), who is sensitive to the “spirits” of the woods.
We learn early on that Jim Suerd has recently died in prison when THE LAST BROADCAST begins, where he was serving two life sentences for murder. We also learn that he was a bit of a loner who was obsessed with the Internet and magic tricks. The implication being that his “psychic” powers were fake, perpetrated by someone with a rudimentary knowledge of magic, and that Suerd was a bit unbalanced to begin with.
Suerd finds the other guys the “right spot” in the middle of the barrens, and they set up camp. There’s a disagreement at one point, when Rein is picking on Jim about his “psychic powers,” which turns into a shoving match (which becomes important later). Then the guys broadcast their show from deep in the woods.
But something goes wrong. Rein and Locus are murdered. Steven Avkast disappears (but they find his hat and a lot of his blood), and Jim Suerd calls the police (his 9-1-1 call begins the movie) to report that something has gone horribly wrong in the woods.
A year or so after the events in the woods, and right after Jim Suerd has died in prison under mysterious circumstances, David Leigh receives a strange package in the mail. Inside is a mostly destroyed VHS cassette, and a lot of loose tape. Leigh brings it to a data retrieval expert , Michelle Monarch (Michele Pulaski) to analyze. Through painstaking work on her computer, Michelle is able to isolate sections of the tape and recover the images, which turns out to be previously lost footage of Steven and Locus’s final broadcast in the woods. The more she deciphers, the closer she gets to revealing the true identity of the murderer.
With the concept of a group of people in the woods, filming themselves, and the exploration of a local legend, you can see the parallels between this movie and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. And THE LAST BROADCAST is just as compelling. In fact, I found myself getting pretty engrossed in the story, wanting to know more as it went along. The acting here is all believable (and I wonder how many cast members were actually professional actors), and the central mystery is very compelling. I really liked the cast of this one, which includes a bunch of other “talking heads,” people who knew the film crew, including the psychologist who met with Jim Suerd as a child (Dale Worstall), a film editor for the prosecution in Suerd’s trial (Mark Rublee) and a director who was hired by the “Fact or Fiction” team, who formerly directed soap operas and who looks a lot like Phil Spector, named Sam Woods (Sam Wells). All of the “witnesses” who talk on camera are interesting and help move the story toward its creepy conclusion.
In a time when the Internet’s domination of us all wasn’t as profound, THE LAST BROADCAST is notable for having both the Internet and videotaped footage play major roles in the film. For the most part, the videotaped footage works very well.
My only complaint is that there’s a coda at the end of the film that feels tacked on. For the most part, the points of view in the film make sense, and are believable. The movie should have ended at a scene where two characters come “face to face” (if you see the movie, you’ll understand what I mean). But instead, there’s a last segment that suddenly breaks the rules of the “point of view” format that was used up to this point, and this final part almost ruined the movie for me. Almost. It’s not completely disastrous, but I found it unnecessary (and who is filming it?) In trying to creep the audience out, it goes a little too far to explain everything (instead of trusting the audience to “get it” at the scene where I think it should have ended).
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT might get all the credit for starting the “found footage” genre, but THE LAST BROADCAST, a film that isn’t as well known, clearly got there first. In a lot of ways (especially because of its amazing marketing campaign at the time), BLAIR WITCH is the more memorable movie, the one that influenced so many other filmmakers to follow in its footsteps, but THE LAST BROADCAST is just as effective, and deserves more credit than it gets.
Also, at several points, when the “Fact or Fiction” guys discussed tracking down the Jersey Devil, I kept wondering, “Why don’t they explain what the legend of the Jersey Devil is all about.” Well, this is not addressed in detail in the movie, but after the end credits, there is a short, related film that does just that – explaining the Jersey Devil myth pretty well.
I liked this movie a lot, and recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the “found footage” genre.
© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares