In THE LAST BROADCAST, fictional filmmaker David Leigh takes an in-depth look at the brutal slaying of three members of the crew of a New Jersey cable access TV show called FACT OR FICTION, and exams the murder trial and subsequent conviction of the only surviving member of that crew’s search for the mythical Jersey Devil in the remote Pine Barrens region. In his quest for the truth, Leigh uncovers a missing and badly mangled videotape which may prove the innocence of the convicted man and reveal what really happened to three young men on December 15, 1995.
Before I review THE LAST BROADCAST on its own merits, let’s get the inevitable (indeed, obligatory) BLAIR WITCH PROJECT comparisons out of the way. It is obvious that the producers of BLAIR WITCH drew considerable inspiration from BROADCAST, which was released a year before Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez turned conventional studio thinking on its ear with their low-budget theatrical smash hit about college students looking for an infamous witch outside Burkittsville, Maryland. Both films feature small groups of young people entering forests in the northeastern U.S. to find local legends, are ostensibly built around the recovered footage shot by the ill-fated crews, and have twist endings designed to leave a single, shocking image in the viewers’ minds. Unfortunately, the fame enjoyed by BROADCAST in the wake of BLAIR WITCH’s phenomenal success, and the love-it-or-hate-it reaction to both films by jaded horror fans, has apparently linked the two movies together forever in the public consciousness. That’s a pity because both films are excellent in their own right, and are fundamentally very different.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT may have borrowed the style and basic premise of THE LAST BROADCAST, but the former is a collection of film and video clips linked together to form a loose narrative, while the latter is a mock documentary which combines considerable newly shot material with the victims’ recovered footage, in a style similar to a Discovery Channel or A&E true crime program. BLAIR WITCH is intended to shock and frighten you while you sit in the theater, in the same way as more expensive, studio-produced horror films. BROADCAST aims more at being thought-provoking and chilling than edge-of-your-seat scary. It’s really more of a dark satire of reality TV and the impact of media on public perception than a straightforward fright flick. Unlike BLAIR WITCH, which purposefully leaves its mysteries unsolved at the end, BROADCAST reveals the truth about the FACT OR FICTION killings in its shocking finale, a completely unexpected revelation which is integral to the movie’s central point. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is ultimately just a well-made, video age version of traditional popcorn terror tales like FRIDAY THE 13TH. THE LAST BROADCAST is an insightful and haunting skewering of broadcast media and how it turns real-life murder into vacuous entertainment, sometimes at the expense of justice and judicial due process. Both films, however, are legitimate modern classics of the genre and deserve to be viewed as separate entities.
The meticulous attention to detail shown by first-time filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler in THE LAST BROADCAST is nothing short of astounding. If this film were playing on cable television and you flipped over to it without knowing it was a movie, you’d swear you were watching COLD CASE FILES or some other true crime investigative report. Every facet of the production, from the unrehearsed interviews to the dramatic structure and presentation of the various materials, is handled with such authenticity that when the end credits roll, it’s almost hard to believe that the FACT OR FICTION murders didn’t really happen. If Weiler and Avalos ever decide that making movies isn’t for them (which would be a true shame for horror fans), they could easily make the jump to network news or reality TV without much additional training. Their almost masterful understanding of the art of compelling, sensational documentary filmmaking is the key ingredient to BROADCAST’s startling realism and power.
Made for under $900, the movie features a no-name cast comprised primarily of friends and family members of the filmmakers. Unlike most such productions, however, this film showcases some wonderful performances from its novice players. Jim Seward is distant and creepy as the convicted Jim Suerd (most of the actors play characters with names very similar to their own), his uneven personality and distracted expression greatly enhancing the uncertainty regarding his guilt or innocence in the brutal crimes. Avalos and Weiler are both completely convincing as the would-be TV stars who find fame in a way they never intended. Among the stand-outs are Tom Brunt as a cynical video engineer who worked on FACT OR FICTION, A.D. Roso as the detective who led the murder investigation, and Michele Pulaski as a data retrieval specialist who ultimately solves the mystery hidden within the frames of the final videotape. Faith and Robert Weiler are also quite good as the Suerd’s former landlady and the editor of the local newspaper, respectively. Frankly, there isn’t a weak card in the deck here, a monumental accomplishment for a film which features only two performers with any real on-camera experience – Sam Wells, playing a former soap opera director hired for the Pine Barrens broadcast, and David Beard, delivering a bravura performance as the intrepid filmmaker determined to find the real answers.
If there is a flaw in THE LAST BROADCAST, it is that the filmmakers do not take any time to delve into the myth of the Jersey Devil itself. The focus of Leigh’s expose is ostensibly the conviction of Suerd, but at the heart of the mystery lays the nagging doubt that perhaps something inhuman does live in the Pine Barrens and is responsible for the deaths of Locus Wheeler, Rein Clackin and Steven Avkast. Unfortunately, without any exploration of the history and folklore surrounding this legendary creature (something the makers of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT did include in their tale), the viewer is left without sufficient fuel to properly foster such a notion in his or her imagination. This is the one area in which Avalos and Weiler stumble in their attempt to accurately re-create sensationalized journalism. If a half-eaten human corpse washed up on the shores of Loch Ness, not one media report in the civilized world would resist the temptation to heavily emphasize the possibility that the victim was attacked by the prehistoric monster that supposedly lives in its murky depths. By having Leigh examine the origins of the Jersey Devil myth for even a few seconds during his investigation, the creators of this inventive work could have added that much more tabloid realism to their otherwise flawless efforts.
Sadly, the original DVD release of THE LAST BROADCAST featured only the film and its trailer. On September 26, 2006, Heretic Films will finally right that injustice by shipping to stores the definitive home video version of this amazing motion picture. Featuring two commentary tracks with Weiler and Avalos, short features on the film’s production, post-production and innovative distribution phases, lengthy (and hilarious) FACT OR FICTION clips, raw interview footage, trailers for other works by the filmmakers, a featurette and comic book about the history of the Jersey Devil, and much more, this disc is a must-have for horror fans and aspiring filmmakers alike. Heretic is also bringing Weiler’s long-awaited sophomore effort, HEAD TRAUMA, to DVD on the same day, in conjunction with its global theatrical release.
It is generally not good form for a critic to take shots at those who don’t share his or her enthusiasm for a film in a review, but THE LAST BROADCAST is such a novel and remarkable creation that one can’t help but conclude that those who don’t like it just don’t get it. It isn’t a blood-and-guts splatter film featuring exploding heads and jiggly teen queens, but it wasn’t meant to be. It isn’t even the kind of soda-pop-and-candy, multiplex thrill ride that BLAIR WITCH was, despite what you may have heard about the similarities between the two movies. In reality, it isn’t really a “horror” film at all, in the traditional sense of the word. Its terror is of the same variety as that of the evening news, stemming equally from man’s limitless capacity for violence toward his fellow man and the media’s unfailing ability to glamorize and trivialize truly unspeakable acts to appease the masses. In fact, about the only thing THE LAST BROADCAST has in common with more conventional horror pictures like JAWS, HALLOWEEN, and the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is that, like those timeless classics, it is an unrivaled, groundbreaking example of cinematic technique employed to its fullest, most rewarding end. Right up through a brilliant final twist worthy of Alfred Hitchcock himself, it will grip you with a combination of morbid curiosity and quiet suspense, and will stay with you long after the credits have ended. Do not miss this BROADCAST.