Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: The Last Broadcast (1998)

The Last Broadcast (1998)

Not rated

Score: 2 out of 5

The Last Broadcast is an often-overlooked progenitor to the found footage subgenre of horror movies. When it is remembered today, it's largely for the fact that it actually beat The Blair Witch Project to the punch by about a year, which has caused some people to label that film a ripoff, though as far as I can tell, both films were conceived independently of one another. While there are similarities on the surface, mainly in the sense that both films use found footage to recount the events of an investigation into an urban legend that goes horribly wrong, there are also a number of major differences right from the start. This film can be best described as Blair Witch by way of Weird NJ magazine, not just in the subject matter (the urban legend in question is the Jersey Devil) but also in its aggressively DIY aesthetic reminiscent of the public access show that its protagonists host. While Blair Witch went out of its way to avoid looking like a movie, The Last Broadcast goes just as far out of its way to call attention to the fact that it's a movie, particularly in how it's presented less like a "traditional" found-footage film and more like a documentary in the vein of TV shows like In Search of..., Unsolved Mysteries, and Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction. I will admit, I was intrigued by the premise, even in the face of the extremely low production values. After all, The Blair Witch Project managed to overcome them to deliver a genuinely scary movie that, honestly, still holds up independent of its long-discredited "based on a true story" gambit, as did the original Paranormal Activity. And the shows that influenced this movie did a lot to bring a whole slew of old campfire ghost stories into the modern day, so there was definitely a lot of material here.

It's too bad that that this film kind of comes apart at the seams.

For all that this film manages to simultaneously embrace and overcome its tiny budget (just about $900) on a technical level, it never sticks the landing when it comes to telling an engaging story. The occasionally hokey acting, the paper-thin characters, the lack of any utilization of the urban legend it purports to be based on, and an out-of-nowhere plot twist at the end that overturned the entire story all conspire to bring this down. If Blair Witch stands as an example of how to do found footage right, incorporating strong elements of improv in order to give it a feeling of authenticity, then The Last Broadcast stands as an example of how to do it wrong, meandering frequently and failing to make its fake-documentary conceit come off as convincing in any way. Shame, because I was actually rooting for this film. Its ideas about the inherently unreliable nature of documentary filmmaking were occasionally intriguing, even if it often got ham-fisted in these messages, and it does manage to successfully ape the style of the TV documentary programs that inspired it. If only they put the same effort into the storytelling and characters.

This film is a mockumentary about a notorious (fictional) murder case in the New Jersey Pine Barrens in 1995, where Steven Avkast and Locus Wheeler, the hosts of a public-access program about the paranormal called Fact or Fiction, were brutally murdered along with their sound man Rein Clackin. In order to boost their flagging ratings, they were doing a special live episode, simulcast over their TV show, amateur radio, and IRC chat, along with Jim Suerd, a purported psychic who would help them find the Jersey Devil. Jim was the only survivor of the incident, and he was subsequently arrested for the murders and sentenced to life in prison in a highly sensationalized trial; he died in prison soon after. However, one man, documentary filmmaker David Leigh, is convinced that Jim was innocent, noticing several discrepancies and evidence of shoddy police work in the case against him. (For instance, why would a man who viciously killed three people have only small drops of their blood on his clothes? Shouldn't the clothes have been drenched in the stuff?) Furthermore, David got a package containing tons of video footage from the incident the day after Jim died, which he feels is no coincidence, and he and a video editor, Michelle "Shelly" Monarch, start sifting through it in order to restore it and find something useful. They soon find evidence that disproves the official account of the murders -- and paints a far more chilling portrait.

I'll give this film credit for one thing: for something that cost about as much to make as it does to purchase a claptrap rustbucket from Honest John's Used Cars, it does not look it. This was the first theatrically-released film that was shot entirely on video, and they used the perfect format for that style in the form of a documentary. While it's obvious from the amateur actors and the threadbare sets that this is fiction, the film employs great use of editing and sound design to show us what happened and establish all the players in the affair. It's not a conventionally scary film, but it is unsettling and weird in the same manner as all the speculative documentaries that it's based on. This was probably the best that such a micro-budgeted, shot-on-video film was ever going to look, and for that, I commend Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler, who wrote and directed this in addition to playing the ill-fated TV hosts.

It's in the writing department, however, where their weaknesses as filmmakers begin to show. We're never given reason to get invested in any of the characters, neither the people on the tape nor those investigating the footage. Steven and Locus are described as having had tension early on, but little is done to build on this, while Rein is even more one-note than those two are. I liked how Jim was handled, though, with his "psychic psychosis" judged to have been an act to make his purported powers appear more credible, and his fighting with the rest of the crew given sinister undertones by the prosecution but shown to be comparatively benign. It made clear early on that he was probably innocent, which makes sense given that this is the intended in-universe focus of the piece: to prove that the police got the wrong man and that whoever -- or whatever -- actually killed those people is still out there. What I can't forgive so easily is the amount of short shrift that David and Shelly got. We get no insight into who David is, which is an important subject given that the main thrust of the film is his drive for the truth, especially in light of the ending (which I'll get to, so I'm just gonna leave this spoiler warning here for now). All he does until the last fifteen minutes is recount what happened and offer evidence calling into question the official account of the events. Likewise, Shelly is treated as just another talking head for most of the film, much like the police investigators and the Fact or Fiction tech guys, and next to no indication is given to the fact that she plays a critical role in the story later on.

Finally, I come to the ending, and with it, spoilers. (So turn back now if you want to see this.) You may notice that, despite this film's premise, I never really mentioned the Jersey Devil in my review. There's a reason for that: he's not in the film, either, outside of a plot device used to get the victims on their ill-fated trip into the Pine Barrens. Rather, it turns out that David, the director and narrator, had killed them all along, and was seeking to exonerate Jim chiefly because his ego was wounded by the fact that his murders were being attributed to some random psycho. I honestly don't completely hate the ending. On one hand, the intention was to cast everything we'd seen in a completely different light, in order to drive home the film's message about how images can lie to us. Just as manipulative editing of the Fact or Fiction team's recovered footage got an innocent man locked away, so we see this film itself revealed to be the work of a man with an ulterior motive. It's a very interesting idea, but it's one that the execution fails to pull off. Nothing is done to hint at the fact that David is a murderer, especially because his narration of the events is so dry that we barely get a sense of his personality at all. At the end, he's shown displaying scorn for Jim, calling him a dumbass who was too stupid to pull off the crimes attributed to him, but this never comes through in the film itself. It feels like an ass-pull that has little to do with the events that came before, especially given that most of the hints that are dropped over the course of the film indicate that the killer may have been the Jersey Devil (in keeping with the "speculative documentary" nature of the film). While I liked the idea, it was handled extremely poorly, feeling like it wasn't really thought out beforehand due to all the plot holes it generates. To go back to a criticism that David raises of the official story: how did the blood get on Jim's clothes if he was nowhere near the site of the murders? And what was David's motive for killing the Fact or Fiction team to begin with? Altogether, it felt like a cop-out that was tacked on just to give this film a final shock ending.

The Bottom Line:

I'm cutting this film some slack given the interesting ideas it raises and the obvious effort that went into its low-budget production, but the finished product is little more than a curiosity for people interested in found-footage movies. I'm not at all surprised that this film has been mostly forgotten, left behind in the shadow of The Blair Witch Project. At least it's better than all the amateur conspiracy docs on YouTube.

No comments:

Post a Comment