The Last Broadcast

“The truth comes down to this one frame.”

The Scoop: 1998 NR, directed by Stefan Avalos & Lance Weiler and starring David Beard, Jim Seward, Stefan Avalos, and Lance Weiler

Tagline: What actually happened that night in the woods?

Summary Capsule: Four men go into the woods. One comes out alive. Open and shut case?

Drew’s Rating: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

Drew’s Review: So I’ve got this great idea for a movie, if anyone’s interested. It’s going to be a horror film, but old-school: no fancy special effects, no big stars, just a low-budget deal that gets back to the real essence of what’s scary. It’ll be about a group of average people, just like you or me, who venture out into the woods with a camera to document a supernatural legend. Here’s the catch, though — something weird happens, they get killed, and the movie uses their footage as an investigation by people wondering what really occurred. And we’ll market it as a true story that happened to real people. Brilliant, if I do say so myself! Now how much can I put you down for?

…what? Already been done? No way, that’s… that’s… crap. You’re right, I forgot; it has. Yeah, in the… wait, the Blair what? No no — I was talking about The Last Broadcast.

Yes, that’s right — there’s another one. But before you dismiss Broadcast as just another soulless Hollywood copycat flick, think again: it was actually filmed and released a year prior to Witch. And while there are indeed eerie similarities between the two, they’re by no means the same movie. Rather, Broadcast takes the form of a documentary aimed at uncovering what really happened, using recovered footage in conjunction with the filmmaker’s own thoughts and interviews with police officers, friends of the deceased, film restorers, etc. As we learn, two hosts of a cable access show about the paranormal, Fact or Fiction, decided to do a special live broadcast about the Jersey Devil. Taking along a sound man and a supposed psychic, they ventured deep into the Pine Barrens in an attempt to find the creature. One returned alive. Many, many pieces of two others were eventually recovered, while the fourth was never found. The survivor was immediately tried and convicted of the murders. But was he really guilty? Just what DID actually happen that night in the woods?

For the amount of money it cost to make, Broadcast is amazingly impressive looking. No, it doesn’t feature professional actors, and it’s definitely choppy in places. But because it’s meant to simulate a low-budget documentary, these things come across not as amateur or sloppy, but rather authentic. I’ve heard stories about people who’ve come across this movie on TV and confused it with an actual, real documentary, and I believe them — it really does give that impression. David Beard does a nice job duplicating the pompous self-importance many documentary makers seem to possess, and the Fact or Fiction hosts (Broadcast’s writers/directors) come across as believable, regular guys just out to have a good time, who took a very, very wrong turn along the way.

Speaking of which, it’s hard to compare Witch and Broadcast in terms of actual scariness, because they have such different styles. In Witch, we were along for the ride with the kids, sharing their growing feelings of isolation, apprehension, and eventual terror. As Broadcast intercuts footage with interviews and outside commentary, we don’t feel as intense a connection with the victims. Instead, most of the fear we experience is akin to that of a good thriller — a man may or may not be guilty, but if he’s not, a killer is still on the loose and must be found before he strikes again. In all honesty, I really can’t tell you which movie is better at generating horror; simply that both rely on slowly building tension rather than “slasher pops out of nowhere with an axe,” and that both scared the crap out of me on first viewings. Aside from the fact I’m a wuss, though, you can take from that what you wish.

There’s no question about it — a big part of whether you enjoy the film or not is going to hinge on the last 5 minutes. Witch is sometimes criticized for not resolving anything about what really happened in the end. Well, for better or for worse, Broadcast definitely doesn’t have that problem; instead, the ending will make it either soar or fall flat in your eyes. My highly formal, scientific internet search suggests that about half of those who’ve seen Broadcast consider the climax a total shocker that ties everything up brilliantly… the others think it’s ridiculous and completely ruins what had, up until then, been a promising movie.

And the truth is, I can see where both sides are coming from. My first time through, I watched with no preconceptions about what was going to happen, and I absolutely loved it. On my second viewing I maintained a more critical eye, and noticed some of the things that annoyed its detractors. Yes, the format changes in the last few minutes, which can be jarring. Yes, if you know the ending ahead of time, no doubt it loses some of its power. Adding to this, there are definite signs of first movie syndrome: the Jersey Devil legend is never explained in much detail, and a couple of questions are raised and never quite answered. Even so, I can’t agree with anyone who claims the film isn’t well constructed — that last scene still creeps me out every time I think about it — though clearly opinions will vary.

The Last Broadcast is a unique movie, no question about it. It’s a film about murder in the digital age, possibly the first to truly explore the ramifications of that. For that alone it’s worth watching, as well as to see the movie that preceded (and possibly influenced) indie smash The Blair Witch Project. And its pioneering method of distribution has earned it a spot in the history books. But as for whether it’s a GOOD film… well, I know what I think. But as they say on Fact or Fiction, you decide.

When ketchup bottles explode

Intermission!

  • The Last Broadcast has the distinction of being the first motion picture produced and distributed entirely digitally (via satellite), rather than on celluloid. Eat it, George Lucas!
  • While one of Blair Witch’s main claims to fame was how little it cost to make, it’s a big-budget blockbuster compared to Broadcast, which supposedly was made for about $900 (minus the computers and cameras, which the filmmakers already owned). By way of comparison, indie legend Clerks cost almost $30,000.
  • The question of how much The Last Broadcast influenced the development of The Blair Witch Project is a touchy one, and will probably never be fully resolved. What we DO know is that Broadcast was in production and completed over a year before Witch; that the makers of Witch had seen Broadcast before shooting most of their movie; that Witch was originally filmed as a documentary, before being changed to simply “lost footage” late in production (with the cut documentary elements used for a promotional TV special); that their respective websites bear startling similarities; and that Broadcast was originally scheduled to play at Sundance Film Festival in 1998 before being yanked at the last minute (while Witch would premiere at Sundance exactly one year later), with the main financial backer of Witch being on the festival’s committee at the time.
  • Clues are scattered throughout the movie as to who (or what) really killed the men.
  • The Evil Dead cam makes an uncredited cameo. Ace!
  • David suggests that Jim couldn’t have killed the other members of the party, his reasoning being that Locus – a pretty big guy – is seen running in terror from his eventual killer. How this jibes with the ending is unclear.
  • New Jersey is way scarier than Maryland. Yeah, that’s right- I went there.
  • The filmmakers didn’t use any makeup to create the gore in the crime scene photos. Instead, they used computer programs to add it in to regular pictures of themselves.
  • After the credits, a message reads “The story and characters depicted in this movie are entirely fictitious. But please don’t tell anyone.”
  • The Jersey (or Leeds) Devil is probably the most well-known piece of Jersey folklore, with stories and reported sightings dating back to before the Revolutionary War. As the legend goes, a colonial woman named Mrs. Leeds learned she was pregnant with her 13th child. Exasperated, she cried out, “I am tired of children! Let it be a devil!” Sadly, this curse would prove prophetic: though Mrs. Leeds gave birth to a healthy, normal baby one stormy night, mere minutes after its birth the child transformed into a monstrous creature with the head of a horse, wings of a bat, terrible claws and horns, and a scaly, forked tail. It attacked its mother and siblings, then with an unearthly screech flew up the chimney and out into the woods, where it has dwelt ever since. Chilling sounds and bizarre sightings in the Pine Barrens – an immense forest covering most of southern NJ – are frequently attributed to the Devil, who rarely attacks people but has been blamed for many a mutilated dog and farm animal. In fact, a massive number of unidentifiable footprints and sightings in January of 1909, ranging as far afield as Pennsylvania and Delaware, led to the temporary close of many businesses and schools. While the beast has been shot, electrocuted, and exorcised over the years, nothing has ever put it down for good, and to this day you won’t find many willing to venture deep into the Pine Barrens late at night.

Groovy Quotes

David: I’d come to this project with many of the same assumptions that you have concerning the Jersey Devil murders, and the guilt of Jim Suerd.

David: I wonder, though, if perhaps the jury, anxious not to ignore DNA evidence, as had happened in other trials…

Rein: Jim, are you a psychic or a psycho?

David: I know that the truth is still at large, potentially closer than anyone can realize.

Locus: Johnny is gone, and all I wanna do is drink some beer.

David: The truth comes down to this one frame.

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2 Comments

  1. “New Jersey is way scarier than Maryland.”
    New Jersey is scarier than everywhere. I once had to spend a night in Newark as a little kid all(most) alone after the airplane home from my Dad’s missed it’s last connection. Eeeeep!
    “As the legend goes, a colonial woman named Mrs. Leeds learned she was pregnant with her 13th child. Exasperated, she cried out, ‘I am tired of children! Let it be a devil!'”
    13 kids?! I think I’d have said something similar in her circumstances. As a side note, I am told that a lot of those devil baby legends are probably rooted in domestic abuse; the fathers’ beatings manifesting in an evil child.

  2. Pingback: A Faraway Time And Place: Lore of the Eastern Shore by George Carey « Excursions Into Imagination

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