United States. 86 minutes. Directed by Stefan Avalos & Lance Weiler, 1998. Starring David Beard, Jim Seward, Stefan Avalos, Lance Weiler, Rein Clabbers.
In 1995, four men–Steven Avkast and Locus Wheeler, the hosts of a cable-access show entitled Fact or Fiction; Jim Suerd, a self-proclaimed psychic; and Rein Clackin, a sound recordist who specialized in the paranormal–entered the Pine Barrens of New Jersey with cameras, recorders, and computers. Their intention was to create a live-as-broadcast episode of Fact or Fiction about the notorious Jersey Devil. The next day, the mutilated bodies of Wheeler and Clackin were found. Avkast was never seen again. Only Suerd survived, and he was arrested, tried and convicted on two counts of murder. Three years later, documentarian David Leigh examines the facts of the case with one question: was Suerd guilty?
The Last Broadcast seems to have a bit of a cult following, but for the most part, it’s known for one thing: doing the Blair Witch Project thing before Blair Witch actually did it. In reality, the two films have a lot less in common than conventional wisdom might suggest: Blair Witch barely bothers to contextualize its content and develops its themes subtly, focusing on characterization and visceral scares, while Broadcast presents its subtext in a more up-front and thoughtful way, with the character of David Leigh presenting the material in a manner more resembling a documentary. The current fad in found-footage movies owes a lot more to Blair Witch than Broadcast (which is more like the supposed granddaddy of found-footage, the mondo-influenced Cannibal Holocaust, than Blair Witch or many of its successors-slash-imitators are). But in a purely cinematic sense, both films set out to do the same thing: turn the limitations of budget into strengths by integrating the stylistic methods forced by using consumer electronics and non-professional actors into the story itself. Unfortunately, while Broadcast is a lot more interesting than Blair Witch, it’s also a lot less effective.
The big problem with Broadcast’s story is its reliance on the documentary format. For most of its running time, it feels like a DIY episode of Unsolved Mysteries or the spate of true-crime cable shows that were all the rage in the early to middle years of the previous decade. While this should lend the production of verisimilitude, it really hurts the characterization, since most of what we find out about the main characters (which isn’t much) isn’t observed firsthand but comes from what interview subjects say about them. Avkast is supposed to be a petty man whose ambitions for Fact or Fiction far outstrip his resources or talent, while Seurd is consistently described as a troubled and occasionally violent soul. This isn’t really borne out by the Fact or Fiction production footage: the relationship between Avkast and Wheeler doesn’t seem to be any more sour than any of the tensions that develop behind the scenes of this site’s podcast, while Wheeler’s violent tendencies are limited to a single scene in which he shoves Wheeler (who’s basically just being an asshole) and runs away, screaming “I’ll see you back at camp, man!”
The film also has several problems presenting its material. In particular, it doesn’t do a very good job in presenting certain elements in a way that convinces the audience that they’re real (or at least they didn’t convince me). Nightly-news archive footage looks painfully amateurish, and several cited newspaper articles are poorly edited (nobody seems quite sure whether the phrases “Pine Barrens” and “Jersey Devil” should be capitalized or not). There are a couple of weird things never sufficiently explained (why is Avkast called “Johnny” in some scenes?) and a couple of what I can only assume are inside jokes that pull the viewer out of the story. (A police detective wearing a golf shirt with a decal reading “A.T.F. Waco, TX” has gotta be a joke, right?)
Despite a detailed reckoning of what happened before and after the titular “last broadcast,” the contents of that episode, or what the audience thought of it, are never portrayed or mentioned in detail. (This is particularly annoying because when discussing Suerd’s trial, one interviewee specifically criticizes the prosecution for never investigating the members of the show’s following.) The non-found-footage scenes look too cheap, cheesy and flat (particularly during the final fifteen minutes, when the narrative pulls out of its documentary conceit and starts looking at events in the third person) to be truly convincing. (I have to wonder what the Time magazine critic who described the production as “slick” was thinking–maybe the film looks much different when viewed on the big screen?)
On the other hand, the presentation of the story itself is compelling enough to keep the audience’s attention, with the mystery being developed at (for the most part) the right pace to keep suspense building (that being said, I feel that there’s about ten minutes of fat that could have been trimmed). Most of the performances aren’t particularly impressive–Jim Seward (as, you guessed it, Suerd) and Michele Pulaski (as a “data retrieval” expert hired by Leigh to restore the footage on some damaged tape) fall flat, but there’s a lot of great chemistry between writer/directors Stefan Avalos (as Avkast) and Lance Weiler (as Wheeler). David Beard puts in the film’s most memorable performance as Leigh, who keeps his blandly agreeable talking head persona intact no matter what’s going on around him.
Best of all, there’s the final twenty or so minutes of the film, in which a plot twist I genuinely didn’t see coming takes the story into more thematically rich territory, offering up the one scene in the film I’d peg as truly scary. (Sadly, stills from it appear in a lot of the film’s promo art…it’s too distorted to be unforgivably spoilery, but it does telegraph the fact that whatever’s going on is not likely to be even remotely connected to the Jersey Devil.)
While The Last Broadcast represents a remarkable achievement for which Avalos and Weiler deserve a place in genre history–it’s a milestone in the realm of digital film production and distribution–it also can’t be denied that it’s been surpassed by many of its spiritual successors (The Bay, for example). In the end, it’s little more than a footnote–an important footnote, but a footnote nonetheless.