Movies: The Last Broadcast (1998)

I know, I know. For someone who claims to not care all that much for found footage movies, I do seem to talk about them more than this seeming disinterest would warrant. But one thing I am very interested in is horror history and innovation, so it was simply a matter of time before I got around to discussing this movie.

While most casual horror fans probably credit 1999’s The Blair Witch Project with kicking off the found footage phenomenon, and horror nerds (no shame; I’m one myself) will nitpick that the 1980 Italian exploitation flick Cannibal Holocaust was technically the first movie that could comfortably be called found footage, one little movie seems to get lost in the shuffle. Not the first film of its kind, but predating The Blair Witch Project by nearly a year (though both films were in production at roughly the same time, and the concept for The Blair Witch Project had been kicking around since 1993), 1998’s The Last Broadcast was produced for the absolutely unheard-of sum of $900, and went on to gross about $5 million, despite being completely independently distributed.

The movie was also notable for being the first somewhat widely released film shot entirely with consumer-grade digital equipment (it was even edited on a desktop computer, running Adobe Premiere Pro 4.2), and the first movie to screen at limited theaters completely digitally, necessitating the film being shown via satellite streaming, since at the time movie theaters were still almost exclusively set up for standard film stock.

In other words, The Last Broadcast was way ahead of its time; it just had the misfortune of coming out only about ten months before the cultural juggernaut of The Blair Witch Project, which in some ways seemed to crush it beneath the boot heel of hype. It was difficult to get hold of for quite a number of years, but thankfully, it seems to have been rediscovered recently to some extent, and as of January 2023, both Shudder and Tubi have added it to their offerings, making it much easier to access; there’s also a nice Blu-ray release of it available that has lots of special features.

Like The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast has a mockumentary element and involves a group of people who become lost in the woods and have something horrible befall them. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, though, The Last Broadcast has an intriguing layer overlaying the “found footage,” and features a murder mystery angle that really keeps the viewer invested in the outcome, at least in my opinion.

The movie is presented as a very low-budget documentary feature by a filmmaker named David Leigh (David Beard), who is examining a well-known murder case that occurred in 1995 in New Jersey. David’s deep, intensely serious narration lends the movie an air of authenticity, as it comes across very much like one of those overly somber, faux-weighty TV documentaries about crime and paranormal topics that littered the media landscape in the 1970s and 1980s.

The incident he’s investigating concerned two guys—Steven “Johnny” Avkast and Locus Wheeler, who are played by the filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler, respectively—who hosted a somewhat well-known cable access show called Fact or Fiction, which focused on paranormal subjects. The show, while initially a cult success, started to wane in popularity, and the pair had the idea to shake things up a bit by doing a live simulcast “in the field” that would center around the search for a local legend. While the idea of livestreaming from a location is of course ubiquitous nowadays, this was quite an undertaking for 1995, when the internet was still in its relative infancy, and the concept of streaming a show simultaneously over the internet and cable television was pretty much unheard of, especially for a piddling little cable access show; yet another way that this film was way ahead of its time.

An anonymous caller to the show suggests that the guys go out to the Pine Barrens to look for the Jersey Devil, a mythical cryptid whose legend stretches back to the seventeenth century. Johnny and Locus agree that this would be a great idea, and recruit a couple of extra hands to help them with the technical and metaphysical aspects of the investigation and its broadcast. The two men they press into service are Rein Clackin (Rein Clabbers), a sound guy whose expertise lies in recording supernatural phenomena, and Jim Suerd (James Seward), a self-proclaimed psychic who insists he can advise them about the best area to search for the elusive Jersey Devil.

Through footage shot by the gang, and later interviews with friends and associates of all the principal characters, David unfolds the narrative for us as he makes his way through his “documentary.” As I mentioned, this is a murder mystery and is presented as such pretty much from the opening minutes: the audience already knows that this excursion into the Pine Barrens went horribly wrong, and that only Jim Suerd returned from the woods. Locus and Rein were found viciously murdered and mutilated, while Johnny was never found at all, though copious amounts of his blood at the scene suggested that he was killed too. Not long after Jim Suerd emerged from the forest, he was charged with murdering the other three guys, and clips from the footage the men shot on their trip were used to make him appear dangerously unstable and violent.

David’s documentary, then, is ostensibly examining the possibility that Jim Suerd was innocent of the murders, and that something else happened out there in those woods. Were the guys, in fact, slain by the Jersey Devil itself? Or was something entirely different going on? The solution to the mystery grows ever clearer as a data retrieval expert named Shelly Monarch (Michele Pulaski), hired by David, attempts to reconstruct some tangled skeins of videotape that David received in a box from an anonymous source and that may reveal the killer.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I will note that the way the mystery was resolved seems to be the main sticking point with people who didn’t particularly care for the movie. I have to say I didn’t mind it, myself; if you think about the logistics of the thing, it doesn’t really make a lot of logical sense, but on the other hand, the solution also gives The Last Broadcast an eerily prescient veneer of meta-ness that seeks to comment on the ways in which the truth is always slippery and prone to manipulation and interpretation by those with various agendas. Watching the film, I actually had a hard time believing that this was made a quarter of a century ago (I mean, aside from the primitive technology at play), especially in regards to its messaging about the ambiguity of reality as filtered through media, an issue we’re wrestling with today to an even more pronounced degree.

I don’t know if I’d say this was a better film than The Blair Witch Project, but it’s certainly a much more ambitious one, one I enjoyed more in some aspects, and one that impressed me with just how forward-looking it was. I was also floored by how much the filmmakers accomplished for less than a thousand bucks; sure, the movie looks cheap and amateurish, but if anything, that only adds to its creepy credibility. Looking at it, you could actually believe that this was something someone would have legitimately made about a real case in the 1990s with the technology available to them. The acting performances are all naturalistic and convincing, as all the players were only given character outlines and allowed to improvise (which was also the case for The Blair Witch Project). I was also really into the murder mystery aspect of it, which kept me engaged through the movie’s entire 85 minutes. I will admit I did guess what the twist was going to be a little while before it was revealed, but I wasn’t bothered by that; your mileage may vary, though, because I have seen a lot of poeple complain about how the ending ruined the movie for them, so caveat emptor, I guess.

If you’re at all into found footage and want to see a VERY early entry into the subgenre that seemed like it was almost entirely forgotten for a time in the long shadow of Blair Witch, then by all means check it out; it’s legitimately a big part of horror history, and although it has flaws, it’s definitely worth seeing, and I actually found myself digging it quite a lot.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


One thought on “Movies: The Last Broadcast (1998)

  1. Not a great ending, but for me more than anything it was too abrupt. I stumbled on this movie back in the days of channel surfing and thought it was a real doc for maybe 45 minutes. Which is too long probably.

    Liked by 1 person

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