Killtoberfest 3 – #15: The Last Broadcast

In All, Movies by Kyu

“The acquiring of mysterious videotape has changed the mood behind the making of this documentary. Gone is the attempt at pure objectivity with which we started.”

Today’s Killtoberfest 3 movie and the last in my found footage sounder, The Last Broadcast, is the most interesting of the three; released in 1998, it is like a piece of uncovered prehistory, a foray into the genre only a year before The Blair Witch Project modernized, popularized, and arguably perfected the form. The distance in form and quality between the two pictures is staggering, and if not for the heavy inclusion of elements like the internet and IRC in The Last Broadcast I would assume it was filmed 8 or 10 years earlier. It’s impossible not to compare the two movies, standing as they do on either side of an invisible divide between two radically different approaches to what is very nearly the exact same narrative. But for all that The Last Broadcast falls short, for all its flaws, it is still a fascinating and worthwhile film.

The movie essentially has three parts, structured like a Christopher Nolan magic trick. “The Pledge” takes up the first half of the film, showing you something ordinary: here, a triple homicide in the Jersey Pine Barrens, with the killer already caught and convicted. It’s filmed and edited like a crappy cable access documentary, which makes sense because the subject of the film is a cable access show, “Fact or Fiction,” a kitschy talk show on which co-hosts Locus Wheeler and Steven Avkast investigate minor incidences of the supernatural and the esoteric. In 1995, the show’s ratings are slipping, and in order to give it a boost, the hosts plan a special event, a live broadcast (which will simulcast over the internet, a nascent concept at the time) filmed in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the woods where the so-called Jersey Devil is said to live. The dour-faced, grim-voiced documentarian responsible for The Last Broadcast, David Beard, has already informed us that Locus, Steven, and their audio engineer Rein will be found murdered and mutiliated–and that the fourth and only surviving member of their crew, oddball and self-professed psychic Jim Suerd, will be charged with their murder. It is the goal of the documentary to prove Jim innocent and to uncover the truth behind what really happened that night. If there is an answer–another killer, proof of Jim’s guilt, or a glimpse of the Devil itself–it will be found in the footage these poor souls recorded. Their last broadcast, as it were.

It’s odd, and I think important, that the movie does not actually go into the legend of the Jersey Devil. It doesn’t even strongly suggest that the monster might be responsible. One gets the sense that the documentarian strives for more objectivity than that. Yet the legend itself is fascinating; tales and supposed sightings of a beast with wings and cloven feet go back to at least the mid-19th century. New Jersey contains extensive woods even now, and I can only imagine how deep and dark were those forests one or two hundred years ago. How tempting it must have been for those who lived on the edge of those woods or even ventured into them from time to time to imagine something evil waiting just beyond the treeline. Woods are naturally creepy places, especially at night. You’re isolated, cut off from civilization, but you can’t see that far into the forest. Anything could be lurking near… or anyone.

But it takes a long time for the film to grow into that sort of atmospheric tension. It spends too long in its first section, laying out the sequence of events and the facts of the case so methodically that we become bored and impatient. Most of the information is either repetitious or just not very interesting in the first place, and it’s not as though the film uses this time for significant character establishment. Part of the problem is just that the fictitious documentary is, in fact, not very well made. It looks amateurish, a zero-budget production (we’ll later learn that the documentarian doesn’t even have a crew–it’s a true passion project for him). Intentional or not, this true crime portion of the movie just doesn’t know how to present information efficiently and in an intuitive narrative order–it pales in comparison to true crime docs like The Thin Blue Line or Paradise Lost–and the result is that the movie slows to a crawl. The other issue is that most of the talking heads interviews here add little to our understanding, focusing mainly on the pre-production of the live broadcast.

The exception, and where the movie picks up interest for a bit, is its examination of Jim’s trial. The prosecution’s evidence against the accused is relatively weak and circumstantial–a few odd statements or instances of behavior, a 45 minute window in his alibi, bloody clothes–and one gets the sense that he was convicted on the basis of two things. One, the simple fact that four people went out and only one came back alive makes Jim an obvious suspect. Two, the prosecution cuts together an edited highlights reel of the “Fact or Fiction” crew’s footage, making sure to use everything that could put Jim in a negative light. This manipulation of video content is one half of The Last Broadcast‘s argument; it says that, far from revealing reality, film is inherently subject to the biases of those who create it (or remake it).

On the opposite side of that fight is the box of tangled videotape the documentarian receives anonymously while in the middle of making his movie. This footage was not available at trial or to the public at large. Shot after the case’s footage ends, this video is the true last material produced by the “Fact or Fiction” crew. And the slow, careful restoration and analysis of this film constitutes the best portion of the film–the Turn, where something ordinary becomes something extraordinary. By this point the movie’s pacing starts to work to its advantage as, frustrated, we scour every new frame for answers. I spent much of this portion watching the woods behind the characters, wondering if each new clip would reveal the killer’s face in the background–or a hint of monstrous wings. Likewise, the documentarian leans toward fine-grained analysis of each new clip and its ramifications for the case. And so does the woman who is painstakingly using digital techniques to restore the images. Like a detective on the hunt, she combs over the tangled strips of video, searching for the truth. A muttered line half-scrambled by the degraded soundtrack, or a distant movement glimpsed–is that a person? Or just visual noise? The uncovered clips are battered and deformed; frames repeat or blur, colors run, shots jump or rattle in the gate. Images run like soup. Surely what they (and we) are looking for is in here somewhere, hidden behind the degradation. Surely some objective reality can be found.

But it’s the third act of the movie, the Prestige, that truly fascinates. I won’t spoil what is discovered, except to say that it brings the movie into a whole new realm of meta. Consider not just what you see, but how you see it, what form The Last Broadcast takes here. The solution works as is, sure, although it skates between cheesy and chilling; but might the mode of its expression mark it as not necessarily true at all? Perhaps, in the end, it’s just a sensationalist, ghoulish climax meant to close off the documentarian’s film with an answer, not the answer. Maybe in the end it’s just a movie.

As I said, it’s impossible to look at The Last Broadcast without thinking of The Blair Witch Project. Both movies are about film crews who get lost in the woods and possibly menaced by supernatural beings, after which their footage is found and assembled. Both movies strove for a meta-layer of verisimilitude, including naming their characters after the actors portraying them. Both were low-budget, independent productions seeking to take a seldom-used cinematic form and put it to good use. The difference in success is marked; Blair Witch went on to become one of the most profitable movies of all time, while Broadcast is little more than a footnote. As video cameras became cheap and ubiquitous for both consumers and independent and amateur filmmakers, as the internet and cell phones connected us, as the urge to self-document was enabled by technological and design advances, the time for found footage simply came around. It’s an artificial style that, done well, totally erases all mental barriers between our suspending our disbelief in the story we’re watching. The scariest stories are the ones that are true, the ones that you conjure for yourself out of the dark of the woods, that limited and isolating viewpoint that the best found footage brings. And although The Last Broadcast may not have achieved that apex, it certainly pointed the way forward for those that came after.

Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.