Friday, June 23, 2000

The Last Broadcast / *** (1997)

In order to get novel but low-key movies noticed, it’s essential for someone to bring the idea into the mainstream. Such is the scenario which brought us the sleeper hit “The Blair Witch Project” last year, the low budget, unconventional thriller that documented the descent of three filmmakers into Maryland woods who were in search of a legend, but found something more terrifying than anyone could have imagined. Like so many new ideas, the “mockumentary” approach of the film has generated massive interest in moviegoers, who have sifted through countless formulaic horror movies in the recent past while in search of successful thrills. Inevitable, it seems, that two sequels to the Blair Witch saga are in the works, along with various clones.

Needless to say, “The Blair Witch Project” is not the first motion picture to use this approach. Nor is it the second. In fact, there are likely over a dozen films in existence with this same technique; unfortunately, finding them is more difficult a job than most would suspect. In brief pursuits, however, one film that usually emerges as proof of early use of this idea is a picture called “The Last Broadcast,” which, intriguingly, was made only back in 1997 and played briefly in theaters in fall of that year. But whereas “The Blair Witch Project” mastered a fresh technique, “The Last Broadcast” is more of an experiment with new material: sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it doesn’t.

There’s a hint of irony behind both products. At the time “The Blair Witch Project” went into production, the filmmakers were not aware of any existing film called “The Last Broadcast,” suspecting that their idea was completely unique. And yet both movies share eerie similarities: they document fateful journeys, they take place in the woods, and they leave viewers paralyzed by unanswered questions, among other things. Is this all coincidental? “As they say in ‘Fact or Fiction?’, you decide.”

The story deals with many familiar desires and fates of “Blair Witch.” In an act of desperation to save their ill-fated public access show “Fact Or Fiction?”, hosts Steven Avkast and Locus Wheeler turn to the public for suggestions of show topics. One day, over IRC chat, a message delivered in an eerie voice runs across the screen—“Why don’t you do a show about the Jersey Devil?” Being the amateurish filmmakers that they are, Steven and Locus are intrigued by this idea, and put it into motion by acquiring two individuals who could go into the remote New Jersey Pine Barrens to help them in their quest to uncover the grizzly secrets hidden there. The live broadcast would simultaneously be seen on the Internet, cable, and ham radio.

But what exactly are they searching for? The Jersey Devil is a creature foretold of in bedtime stories, the thirteenth child born into a household hundreds of years ago, mutated by the words of its mother—“let this be a devil.” It grew into a full-sized being only moments after birth, killed and devoured the residents, snuck up into the chimney and disappeared into the wilderness. Future residents nearby claimed to have seen this creature still in existence. The movie, however, boasts no explanation of these occurrences; the journey into the woods seems so pointless that we feel Steven and Locus are merely doing this investigation to garner ratings for their one-joke cable show. No, not even the two followers—Rein Clackin, a sound supervisor who can “record frequencies from other worlds,” and Jim Suerd, a self-proclaimed psychic who can lead the filmmakers to the best spot in the woods to uncover their secrets—seem to have any knowledge of what the Jersey Devil is.

Not that it matters, at least for three of the four men. On the morning of December 16, 1995, a call is dispatched to police headquarters from a phone in the vicinity of the Pine Barrens by Jim Suerd, who states that the three he arrived with are nowhere to be found (“I have a bad feeling about all of this,” he proclaims). Steven Avkast, Locus Wheeler and Rein Clackin are classified as missing persons 24 hours later. Then, on December 19, officials find two bodies only miles away from the campsite of the filmmakers. The bodies are of Locus and Rein; Steven’s is nowhere to be found, but large deposits of blood draw the conclusion that he, like his fellow crew members, was killed as well.

The state of Pennsylvania mounts a massive case against Jim Suerd for these gory, ritualistic homicides; being the only person aware of their location, he is therefore the prime suspect (although he proclaims his innocence continuously). Prosecution in the case uses the very footage shot by the deceased to discredit Suerd’s image, and though the tapes are somewhat circumstantial and contain no actual footage of the murders occurring, they portray him as a manipulative, eccentric man with violent tendencies, definitely capable of murder. In less than an hour-and-a-half, a jury finds him guilty and sentences him to two consecutive life terms.

The movie itself does not present this trip in the straightforward manner that “The Blair Witch Project” did, but rather, targets the investigations and theories preceding the murders. At the center is filmmaker David Leigh, who weighs in on the situation from several perspectives, captures interviews with those involved in these men’s lives, and provides the viewer with footage that could unleash arguments for both sides. A climactic moment bursts from nowhere when, in the middle of his investigation, Leigh is delivered a package containing lost video footage from that fateful night in the woods. Further adding to the tension is the unexplained death of Jim Suerd in jail, which occurs only four days after this package arrives. These circumstances easily the shift the focus, as the footage, reconstructed by a specialist, promises all sorts of new possibilities. What happened that night in the woods? And was Jim really capable of that kind of malevolent conduct?

First-time filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler, who portray the two doomed cable show hosts, successfully pierced the fabric of mockumentary thrillers with this endeavor, and made a picture soaked in elaborate detail. Unfortunately certain areas of the film lack the necessary insight, and others fail to live up to their potential. Why, for instance, does the film not discuss the Jersey Devil when it is the source of inspiration for Steven and Locus’ trip into the Pine Barrens? Surely the legend fits in somewhere to the killings, as one did in “The Blair Witch Project.” Adding to the list of quibbles is the film’s resolution, which, of course, attempts to resolve the mystery behind the Pine Barren murders, but winds up leaving more questions on our minds than what we start with. To this effect, “The Last Broadcast” is the kind of film in which tension mounts, but our anticipation for an effective conclusion is more frightening than the actual climax.

Given its unavoidable faults, though, this is still a solid film: well organized, thought-provoking, and in ways, as creepy as its successor. “The Blair Witch Project” is still a far superior film than “The Last Broadcast,” but that doesn’t mean the latter should be completely ignored. Viewers who bathe in this new technique of filmmaking should at least enjoy this picture for its efforts, even if some are unsuccessful.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 1997; Not Rated; 86 Minutes

David Beard: David Leigh
Jim Seward: Jim Suerd
Stefan Avalos: Steven Avkast
Lance Weiler: Locus Wheeler
Rein Clabbers: Rein Clackin

Produced, directed and screenwritten by Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler

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