Cinema Fearité presents 'The Last Broadcast'
Before 'The Blair Witch Project,' there was 'The Last Broadcast.'
Even though movies like Cannibal Holocaust and The Legend of Boggy Creek had done it before, The Blair Witch Project is generally credited with starting the whole found footage, faux-documentary style of horror filmmaking. But one year before, in 1998, another movie beat The Blair Witch Project to the punch, a movie so similar that cries of plagiarism and intellectual property theft were tossed around. That movie was called The Last Broadcast.
The Last Broadcast is about a cable access show called “Fact or Fiction” whose hosts, Steven Avkast and Locus Wheeler (writers/directors Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler) travel into the New Jersey Pine Barrons to track down the legendary monster known as the “Jersey Devil.” Accompanying the two hosts are a “paranormal sound man” named Rein Clackin (Rein Clabbers) and a psychic named Jim Suerd (Jim Seward). Jim Suerd is the only one who returns, and when the bodies of the others are found, the psychic is charged with – and convicted of – their murders.
The case attracts the attention of filmmaker David Leigh (David Beard), who meticulously gathers interviews and curates footage to put together a documentary about what he believes happened. He even comes across previously unseen tape that he reassembles, giving him new insights as he reconstructs what happened on that fateful Jersey Devil hunting trip. The Last Broadcast purports to be Leigh’s documentary.
Of course, in this day and age, audiences know that it isn’t. The Last Broadcast is about a year ahead of its time, with Avalos and Weiler seemingly inventing the found footage trend before the world was ready for it. With no creepy website or internet campaign, The Last Broadcast didn’t have nearly the viral push that The Blair Witch Project had, so it stayed under the radar while The Blair Witch Project changed horror history.
Most of the influence that The Last Broadcast might have had on the world was serendipitous at best. The masses-fooling fake documentary had been done in 1992 with the BBC’s Ghostwatch, and the same year as the release of The Last Broadcast saw the airing of the found footage television movie Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, so the seeds for the trend were already planted. But the North Eastern woods, the missing filmmakers – it all seems suspicious, right?
Whereas The Blair Witch Project is a first-person presentation of the lost footage, The Last Broadcast is more of a courtroom procedural combined with an investigative recreation of events, almost like a “48 Hours” or a “Dateline NBC” type of a thing. It’s not nearly as experimental as The Blair Witch Project, so it’s not nearly as scary. However, it doesn’t rely on marketing gimmicks or additional research to be done by the viewer, either. For most of the movie, it presents everything it has to say in a very matter-of-fact way. It’s a traditional documentary. It’s just one that is based on fiction instead of fact.
And, just as an exploitative true crime news program would, The Last Broadcast gets a bit sensational in its treatment of its suspect, Jim Suerd. Aided by the fact that Suerd was tried and convicted of the crimes, the movie paints him as the villain, even when Leigh uncovers evidence to the contrary. Indeed, Suerd is an explosive and volatile person – one scene shows him violently assaulting one of the hosts who asks him “are you a psychic or a psycho?” – but the evidence used against him at trial was mostly circumstantial, and he did have an alibi, albeit a fairly shaky one. Instead of following the supernatural lead of the Jersey Devil being the culprit, Leigh’s train of thinking is committed to the murders being carried out by a human being.
Which sets up a complete shift in style and tone that almost ruins the movie. The Last Broadcast features a “twist ending” that, quite frankly, should be taught in film school as an example of what not to do. Not only does it switch from a documentary style to a narrative one, but it kills off any goodwill that the film had earned with its audience up until that point. Without spoiling anything, it’s an infuriating copout. It would have been much better if the Jersey Devil had shown up and eaten everyone involved (which – spoiler alert – is not what happens).
Before anyone gets out their pitchforks, let it be known that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez had been fleshing out their ideas for The Blair Witch Project as far back as 1993, so they didn’t rip off The Last Broadcast. It was a case of spontaneous inspiration. And both films have their merits. Just be prepared to get mad at the last ten minutes of The Last Broadcast.