Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The surprise 1999 hit The Blair Witch Project was an undeniable film-going phenomenon that scared up a fortune by attracting millions of moviegoers to a tiny independent movie filmed mostly with amateur video equipment. Although a growing number of $500 "reality" epics have followed, a general theatrical market has not opened up for fictional Dvcam thrillers with backyard production values.
The Last Broadcast is a similar no-budget horror film that predated Blair Witch by one year. Irate buzz on the web often argues that it is the far superior picture. There are plenty of video-based horror films made by young computer-savvy men in their 'twenties. Despite the fact that it never found a mass audience, this one does have an edge.
The Last Broadcast and Blair Witch indeed have striking similarities. Both rely heavily on the concept of 'found video,' the supposed examination of which uncovers a baffling, terrifying mystery. Instead of searching for a witch in Maryland, this picture's intrepid crew goes deep into the woods of New Jersey looking for a demonic phantom. The movie we watch purports to be a true document of the subsequent cover-up that pushes beyond official efforts to pinpoint the real killer.
A video documentary by filmmaker David Leigh (David Beard) recounts the baffling mystery surrounding two dead and one missing man in the woods of southeastern New Jersey. Steven Akvast (Stefan Avalos) and Locus Wheeler (Lance Weiler) ran a failing 'reality' cable access show called "Fact or Fiction." To boost ratings they put together a team to investigate a mythical monster known as the New Jersey Devil: Rein Clabbers, a sound man 'experienced' in recording the paranormal (Rein Clackin) and Jim Suerd, a would-be actor and magician claiming psychic powers (Jim Seward). Steven and Locus took off to the woods with remote equipment to 'broadcast' simultaneously on the net as well as on their TV cable show. Something went wrong. One young man disappeared and two were brutally chopped to bits. Jim Suerd was tried and convicted as a killer, and later died in prison. But filmmaker Leigh methodically interviews everyone who knew the ill-fated investigators, and hires Data Retrieval Expert Shelly Monarch (Michele Pulaski) to extract new video information from videotapes recovered from the expedition.
Created by three guys in a television workshop, The Last Broadcast nails the full range of possibilities inherent in this decade's Reality Television phenomenon. Blair Witch simply focused on the horror of the frightened kids on the mystery videotapes, while Broadcast doubles back on its own premise in surprisingly sophisticated fashion. The narrator / documentarian David Leigh covers the bizarre murders with a skeptical eye, examining all the video evidence before him and providing a second level of criticism. It's like having Dana Andrews' professional psychic debunker from Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon along as an objective observer. When Andrews starts taking things seriously, so do we. It's also fair to assume that many audience members will accept David Leigh as the real maker of the film, thus blurring the line between fantasy and reality -- if such a line still exists.
Leigh's narration recounts how the State's official prosecutors railroaded Jim Suerd by manipulating video evidence, 'cherry-picking' certain videotape moments to produce a document that prejudiced the jury against the defendant. Viewers are encouraged to associate this legal presentation video with government-sponsored propaganda, thus creating a third level of manipulated reality within the film's framework. While nodding their heads at the implication that all TV news and documentary shows are similarly skewed to favor preset notions, the audience is again misdirected away from the idea that the film they're watching is also fakery, of the kind celebrated in Orson Welles' F for Fake.
Or at least that's the plan. The Last Broadcast has cleverness to spare but is severely limited by its tiny budget. Filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler cobble their film out of bogus interviews, mocked-up documents and newspaper clippings, fake docu footage, fake found footage and faked 'clips' from the fairly feeble "Fact or Fiction" cable show, which looks to be way below Wayne's World in terms of quality. That cheesiness is part of the story, and Avalos and Weiler's show-host characters are appropriately flaky, even amusingly so. But we don't quite get suckered into the idea that the goofy pair are capable of managing both a live remote hookup from the wilds of Jersey and a simo webcast, at least not at the public access level of expertise shown. The video engineer character repeatedly calls the boys losers and their show a dying joke. In reality, "Fact or Fiction" is pulling off technical feats that would impress the pants off any local TV news affiliate.
Much of the film stresses this technical aspect to the point of absurdity. The Data Retrieval Expert sorts out snippets of recovered videotape as if they were film clips in a trim bin. Devotees of shadow technology will dote on the idea of improving a damaged video still image by applying heavy doses of image-enhancing software. For all we know, the CIA indeed can turn a blur on a surveillance camera into a portrait suitable for framing. Nevertheless, the dramatic step-by-step rendering of 'improved' images seen here is basically a gloss on the laughable photographic blow-up process used in the old Jimmy Stewart noir Call Northside 777.
Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler use a last-minute revelation to jolt The Last Broadcast from docudrama 'reality' into a standard thriller, and conclude their film in a flurry of action. With audiences already on the edge of their seats the sudden style shift is a stunner. As magicians, the filmmakers have done their work well.
But it's not difficult to figure out why Blair Witch took the brass ring while the earlier and more original The Last Broadcast is still a marginal genre offering. Witch stays centered on the basic idea that, "gosh, what we're watching is real," and for most of its running time wears down audience defenses by encouraging an emotional linkage with its trapped and terrified teens. Like a spooky story told over a dimming campfire, major moments play out in darkness. The Last Broadcast takes a much more intellectual approach and asks us to absorb a lot of exposition. We barely get to know its characters and we aren't encouraged to really identify with any of them. The actual "in the forest and scared" footage is much more limited. Although it's far from a Thinking Man's Thriller, The Last Broadcast requires a modicum of intellectual interplay with its audience. Audiences rarely tolerate that proposition without glamorous name actors to keep them company. 1
With the subtitle The Definitive Special Edition of the Chilling Classic, The Last Broadcast is a quality video release organized directly by the filmmakers on their own label, Wavelength. A series of interviews, commentaries (one each for Avalos and Weiler) and short docus cover the full gestation of the project and the experience of taking it to major film festivals; hopeful filmmakers will become misty-eyed at the sight of Avalos and Weiler schmoozing at Cannes. In contrast to the cloddish egomaniacs they play in the film, the young filmmakers are sharp and personable showmen. They pinpoint the moment that video-based 90s filmmaking took off: When video cards in ordinary PCs became capable of outputting broadcast-quality video. They also report proudly that their film was the first all-digital production to be satellite-transmitted to theaters nationwide.
The Last Broadcast is a fascinating homemade production that can easily spur a dozen discussions about the nature of media and how it shapes our perceptions. If there is a practical lesson here for startup filmmakers, it is that any project seeking to attract a mass audience had better connect to this new notion of media "reality." If the audience cannot be encouraged to believe that the concept will have a vital personal impact, they aren't going to buy it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Broadcast rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: two commentary tracks, bts docus, interviews, outtake 'Fact or Fiction' clips, image gallery, Jim Seward 2 folk songs
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 12, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. I've said this before, but the first encounter I had with a narrative hyped with "reality" is in Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. Philippo Sanjust's clever story confects a gripping opening in which a group of explorers search an underground grotto for a previous missing expedition. They find only an abandoned movie camera next to a pool of water. They go back and develop the film, which contains shots that show the lost expedition reacting in terror to an unseen menace. When the explorers go back to the grotto to investigate that pool of water, we're ready to believe anything could be in its depths. We saw it in a movie first, and movies don't lie.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson