On December 15th, 1995, four men head off into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary Jersey Devil. Armed with only a few video cameras and their insatiable curiosity, the would-be filmmakers fall victim to a series of gruesome murders and mysterious disappearances, leaving only their own footage as evidence.
At first glance, "The Last Broadcast" appears to be a wannabe-'mockumentary' riding in the wake of "The Blair Witch Project", the indie horror film built on the conceit of using actual 'recovered' footage from a student project gone horribly wrong. However, the actual truth of the matter is that "The Last Broadcast" not only preceded "The Blair Witch Project" (by at least a year), but it also had a profound influence on the latter film's theatrical cut and marketing campaign. But despite being the first, it is not necessarily the better.
"The Last Broadcast" begins with an introduction by the documentary's director/producer/narrator David Leigh (David Beard), who shares with the audience his belief that the events on the night of December 15th, 1995 are not as clear-cut as they seem, despite assurances following a thorough police investigation. Using archival footage, interviews, and some videotape that had been shot by the 'victims', Leigh re-enacts the events leading up to the infamous 'Fact or Fiction' murders.
We are introduced to Steven Avkast (co-director Stefan Avalos) and Locus Wheeler (co-director Lance Weiler), the fun-loving hosts of the low-budget cable show about the paranormal, "Fact or Fiction". In a bid to invigorate their lackluster series, they propose a live cable/Internet simulcast from the Pine Barrens to search for the legendary Jersey Devil. After a brief casting call for a crew to help pull this off, they settle on soundman Rein Clackin (Rein Clabbers) and the eccentric Jim Suerd (Jim Seward), whose alleged psychic powers will help them locate their quarry. And so on December 13th, 1995, the four men set off towards the woods, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Jersey Devil.
On the morning of December 16th, a 911 call is received from Suerd, who claims that his team members have gone missing. Two days later, the police find the blood-soaked and mutilated bodies of Wheeler and Clackin, and Suerd is immediately placed under arrest. In the criminal trial that follows, the prosecution demonstrates Suerd's guilt using forensic evidence and some incriminating footage from the last broadcast of "Fact or Fiction". Suerd is subsequently found guilty of murdering Wheeler, Clackin, and Avkast (even though his body was never recovered) and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Not long after, Suerd is found dead in his jail cell under 'mysterious circumstances'.
However, Leigh is not convinced of Suerd's guilt in the 'Fact or Fiction' murders. Using the very same footage that convicted Suerd, Leigh casts some serious doubts on the findings of the police investigation, and inadvertently uncovers the truth about what really happened on the night of December 15th, 1995.
Since the runaway success of "The Blair Witch Project", there has been much controversy over which film came out first. Haxan Films, which produced "The Blair Witch Project", claims that the concept for their film originated in 1992 and that it was registered with the Writers Guild of America in 1996. However, one of the film's co-directors, Eduardo Sanchez, contradicts this statement with his admission that he had come up with the idea while in film school in 1993. However, the first appearance of anything resembling the feature film was not until 1997, when it debuted as a short 8-minute demo segment on the television show "Split Screen". However, it was not until after this segment was aired that Sanchez and his co-director Daniel Myrick actually got funding to do "The Blair Witch Project" for real, which began filming in October of 1997. Their completed film then debuted in the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.
According to Avalos, the idea for "The Last Broadcast" came together in the fall of 1996 and they began shooting the film by December. By the summer of 1997, "The Last Broadcast" was finished and had been publicized in the e-zine "indieWIRE", which is about the time that the first 8-minute 'trailer' of the non-existent "The Blair Witch Project" first appeared. Word of mouth about "The Last Broadcast" continued to spread throughout the rest of that year, and it was scheduled to debut at the 1998 Sundance Festival. Unfortunately, the film was unexpectedly rejected at the last minute and did not debut. Later on, it was revealed that John Pierson, the main financial backer of "The Blair Witch Project", was a member of the Sundance Committee, and in the following year, "The Blair Witch Project" made its debut at the festival.
In addition to the 'who came first' controversy, there has been much publicity over how much the marketing campaign for "The Blair Witch Project" mimicked that of "The Last Broadcast". Many comparisons have been drawn between the trailers of both films, as well as the highly-similar web sites. In both cases, "The Last Broadcast" beat "The Blair Witch Project" by at least a year.
Controversy aside, is "The Last Broadcast" a better film? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Narratively, "The Last Broadcast" is closer in structure to "The Curse of the Blair Witch", the one-hour Sci-Fi Channel special that appeared a few weeks before the theatrical release of "The Blair Witch Project". Interestingly enough, "The Curse of the Blair Witch" is actually closer to the original vision of Myrick and Sanchez, but they were convinced during the summer of 1998 to take the 'lost footage only' approach in order to avoid having their film look identical to "The Last Broadcast". Like "The Curse of the Blair Witch", "The Last Broadcast" looks at the events in retrospect using an investigative journalism approach (as in "Hard Copy"), supplementing the material with faux interviews, police crime scene photographs, and 'forensic analysis' of the recovered footage. Which is the greatest weakness of the film.
The problem with the approach taken in "The Last Broadcast" is that it distances the audience from the action. All the events are examined from the outside-in by the film's narrator and interviewees, which creates a sense of emotional detachment from the action. This cold narrative style does not give the audience sufficient opportunity to know and sympathize with the characters, and also does not instill any sense of urgency into the proceedings. This sense of disconnection is further exacerbated with the four main characters never being fully fleshed out, spending most of the screen time 'goofing around'.
In contrast, in "The Blair Witch Project", the camera was always on the three main characters without the benefit of any 'analytical filtering', so the audience experienced what the characters experienced. The audience also got to know the three main characters and watch their tight-nit group disintegrate under the strain of being lost in the woods. Of particular note was actress Heather Donahue, who carried the film with her sympathetic portrayal as the embattled leader of the group who starts off brimming with confidence and enthusiasm, only to succumb to an overwhelming sense of helplessness when her project begins to fall apart.
Another problem with "The Last Broadcast" is the film's twist ending, which is incongruent with everything that leads up to it. While some viewers may rejoice at the graphic violence of the film's ending (which was missing in "The Blair Witch Project"), it feels tacked on and gimmicky, and betrays (with the subtlety of a snuff film) the entire conceit around the film's premise.
In closing, there are some people who might find "The Last Broadcast" of passing interest. If you are a fan of "The Blair Witch Project", then you might find want to view "The Last Broadcast" to see the similarities and the influence that it had. If you are a fan of "The Curse of the Blair Witch" (available on video or the DVD of "The Blair Witch Project"), then you'll probably enjoy the similar narrative structure and "Hard Copy" look of "The Last Broadcast". Finally, budding independent film-makers might find the supplementary materials on the DVD of interest, which go into the production, post-production, and distribution challenges that Avalos and Weiler encountered in having their film made, particularly how "The Last Broadcast" was the first film to ever be distributed in digital form.
Despite the storm of controversy and legal action that has erupted around "The Blair Witch Project" and their own film, Avalos and Weiler have found an unexpected silver lining-- thanks to stories about the controversy featured on "Entertainment Tonight" and in "The New York Post", sales of "The Last Broadcast" video and DVD have gone through the roof. Not bad for an initial $900 investment.