The Last Broadcast (1998)

[21 October 2008]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Why is The Last Broadcast a better film than its unholy spawn, the insipid Blair Witch Project? How come it manages to be coherent, suspenseful, funny, and fresh while Witch remains loud, abrasive, confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying? It could have something to do with the overall approach. The Last Broadcast is a mock documentary, an attempt by an outsider to interpret and extrapolate on the “found footage” of some deadly events in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Witch is a wobbly “you are there” presentation of the actual material discovered during an investigation into the disappearance of a filmmaker and her friends. Both employ plenty of POV perspectives, although one substitutes swear words for actual conversations.

Yet in the end, Witch is a one-joke movie, a gimmick that once given away is not easily re-experienced and appreciated. In the case of Broadcast, filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler have found a way to incorporate the same menacing mood and unexpected story twists without losing us in Gen-X jerkdom and pointless aural thrills. Besides, Witch only has one scene going for it—and it arrives right at the very end of the movie. Broadcast almost unravels when it shifts to showcase its finale. Yet between the two, this fake-fact film is more industrious and inventive, leaving the Burkittsville bunch wallowing in its wake.

As hosts of the popular cable access program Fact or Fiction, Steven “Johnny” Avkast and Locus Wheeler are used to the unusual. But when their tie-in Web site turns up a request to do a show on the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the so-called “Devil” that supposedly lives in them, the two hosts end up getting in way over their head. Hiring a technology expert named Rein Clackin, who claims to be able to pick up paranormal sounds with his recording equipment and bringing along a supposed psychic named Jim Suerd to “get in touch with the spirit world,” the duo proceed with their plan to broadcast live from the middle of this eerie remote location. They hope to put an end to the monster myths once and for all.

All preparations appear to run smoothly, but as they approach the campsite, Jim becomes disoriented, threatens Rein, and runs off. As the show starts, Jim sequesters himself nearby, chatting on the computer. The others proceed with the investigation. The next day, everyone’s dead—except for Jim. Naturally, the police think the ominous loner killed his comrades, but documentary filmmaker David Leigh believes otherwise. It is his goal to expose the truth about what happened that night deep in the New Jersey woods. He will figure out what happened during this Last Broadcast, hoping that the facts will clear Suerd and lead to the real killer—whoever or whatever it is.

Naturally, the next question is why The Last Broadcast isn’t as successful, or even more so, than its blockbuster brother. The answer is actually quite simple. When placed up against the ersatz realism of the adventures in disorientation of Heather, Josh, and Mike, Broadcast appears cold and distant. We never get to know Steven and Locus and more or less fail to find a reason to root for Jim Suerd, the fame-whoring pseudo-psychic who may or may not have murdered his fellow cable-access adventurers.

No, the real thrust of this far superior film’s force is in its clever and consistently creative storytelling. Witch went one way, and one way only—follow three people into the woods and watch what happens. Broadcast uses that same dynamic, then fleshes it out with backstory, humor, standard documentary interviews, and eccentric character twists to take us out of the actual moment, only to redirect our attention and place us right back in the middle of these murders. It’s a wonderfully inventive method of keeping the story fresh and free from the stagnancy that can come with such an approach. We get caught up in the mystery first, then find reasons to hang onto the individuals involved.

Once successfully removed from its copycat cousin (While there is no real proof of plagiarism, the Blair Witch gang does admit to seeing this movie before setting out to make their own), what you end up with is a wildly entertaining experience that uses subtle thrills and undeniable chills to tell an excellent story of arrogance unhinged and dangers undetected. The Last Broadcast believes in the effectiveness of its narrative and never once tries to pull any punches or fake any fear. When it wants to be goofy and gratuitous, it is. When it hopes to be strange and unexplainable, it is as well.

In fact, there are very few things that Broadcast is not. This is the rare movie that appears to achieve all of its goals instantly and honorably, never going for the cheap trick or the obvious element. It is so expertly constructed, so flawlessly built out of facets we recognize from all over the genre map, that when they finally come together toward the end, we never once doubt their effectiveness as a source of shivers. Because of its snuff film-like realism and its desire to tell its scary story honestly and realistically, Broadcast builds up a lot of gonzo goodwill—and it needs it. The conclusion takes a track that many won’t see coming, and even more may find it antithetical to what the movie was originally striving toward.

That would be a shortsighted interpretation of what occurs. If anything, The Last Broadcast is one of the few films to anticipate its imitators and offer up its own intriguing commentary on their overall modus operandi. When you realize that someone other than the Blair Witch crew is manipulating the events to create the on-camera “scares” we see, the brilliance of Avalos and Weiler’s ending becomes clear. Instead of going for a supernatural slant or a direct link to the obvious suspects, Broadcast takes on the notion of perception—why we follow certain stories and what we eventually get out of them. When the denouement is made (in a wonderfully effective montage sequence), we bristle at the brashness of such a reveal.

Then, as the wrap-up begins—both figuratively and literally—we get the opportunity to reflect on all that’s come before. It paints the entire story in a totally different light, one that suggests more than the movie ever sells, and illustrates how effective an approach like this can be. Since major cinematic elements (such as acting or production value) are not really necessary here, The Last Broadcast has to get by on the success of its storytelling alone. In that regard, it is masterful. It creates an impression far more lasting than some frightened fellow momentarily glimpsed in a basement corner.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-last-broadcast-1998/