Last Broadcast, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The most noteworthy thing about The Last Broadcast has nothing to do with The Blair Witch Project (more about this later). Instead, although most movie-goers are probably unaware of this, The Last Broadcast became the first feature-length motion picture ever to attain theatrical distribution without having been transferred to celluloid. The movie, which was made on video for a paltry $900, was beamed via satellite to the five U.S. theaters participating in its trial run, then projected using digital equipment. And, although The Last Broadcast didn't make a lot of money, it was nevertheless deemed a modest success. Without the significant cost associated with striking a 35 mm print, co-producers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler avoided going deep into debt in order to distribute their feature.

The Last Broadcast made its "official" theatrical debut in October 1998, less than three months before The Blair Witch Project became the talk of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. However, The Last Broadcast had been making the film festival rounds for the better part of a year, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Blair Witch directors Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez had seen or heard about the movie before putting their own production before cameras. Whether The Last Broadcast influenced The Blair Witch Project is a red herring. While there are nearly as many similarities as there are differences, calling The Blair Witch Project a "rip off" is both unfounded and untrue. Both films have nearly identical premises and documentary-style approaches to storytelling, but The Blair Witch Project is more intriguing, better written and acted, and, as a result, more compelling. At best, The Last Broadcast is an interesting failure. But it can make the rightful claim of having come first. (And, as a footnote, interest in The Last Broadcast has skyrocketed since its "connection" to The Blair Witch Project was reported in certain media circles.)

The Last Broadcast begins near the end. Documentary filmmaker David Leigh (David Beard) is chronicling the deaths of two cable access TV personalities who were murdered while in New Jersey's Pine Barrens doing a live broadcast searching for the Jersey Devil. Four people - Fact or Fiction hosts Steven Avkast (Stefan Avalos) and Locus Wheeler (Lance Weiler), along with sound man Rein Clackin (Rein Clabbers) and psychic Jim Suerd (Jim Seward) - went into the Pine Barrens on a chilly night with the intention of making contact with the mythical beast. Only one, Seward, made it out alive. The police subsequently arrested him for a triple homicide. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced. He subsequently died in prison under mysterious circumstances. Leigh's intent with this movie is to examine the events leading up to Avkast and Wheeler's last broadcast and to determine whether Seward may actually have been innocent.

With the exception of the final ten minutes, The Last Broadcast is constucted like a faux documentary, and, when it stays within the parameters of that genre, it works well. Although Avkast and Wheeler have not assembled the most talented cast of actors, the verisimilitude of their approach overcomes these shortcomings to establish a sense of false reality. Someone not knowing that this is a fictional film might mistake it for one of those talking head documentaries that play endlessly on numerous cable TV channels. Unfortunately, The Last Broadcast falls apart at the conclusion. In an attempt to reveal all by stripping away the shroud of mystery, Avkast and Wheeler not only abandon the pseudo-doc style, but resort to all sorts of silly and over-the-top shenanigans. The Last Broadcast's enjoyability, not to mention its credibility, is seriously compromised by the way in which it is wrapped up. If nothing else, this argues favorably for the kind of ambiguity evident in The Blair Witch Project's closing moments.

While The Blair Witch Project was constructed as a straightforward horror film, The Last Broadcast plays more like a murder mystery. There's never more than a fleeting consideration of whether the Jersey Devil might be behind the deaths; instead, the question centers on Seward's guilt. Did he do it, or was he framed? Leigh spends the entire movie building a case in favor of the man's innocence - but the coup de grace is a cheat. The gradual sense of tension and suspense built up over the course of the first hour-plus is dissipated in a profoundly dissatisfying manner, with a key plot element virtually replicating something from the Kevin Costner thriller, No Way Out.

The lengthy faux documentary segment of the film is pieced together with great care and creativity. With an eye to fooling an unsuspecting viewer, Avkast and Wheeler entwine supposed archive video, mock news reports, a genuine-sounding 911 audio tape, "expert" interviews, and computer graphics into a cohesive whole. And, like many real documentaries, The Last Broadcast is unevenly paced. There are times when it becomes sluggish. On other occasions, however, it successful piques the viewer's attention.

From a technical point-of-view, The Last Broadcast's production crew found some innovative solutions to problems. For example, when photographs of bloodied bodies are required, no makeup or fake gore was used. Instead, Avakast and Wheeler took regular photographs then used computer manipulation to create the final result. In the end, this doesn't look like a big-budget effort, but it looks better than one might reasonably expect from something made for $900.

The degree to which The Last Broadcast succeeds will, in large part, be determined by each invidual's answer to this simple question: how badly will a feeble conclusion damage or discredit an otherwise intriguing picture? Actually, those who prefer neat endings where everything is wrapped up with bows and ties (unlike Limbo and The Blair Witch Project) may appreciate The Last Broadcast's coda (even if they are confused or put off by the manner in which the final revelations are made). However, for those who dislike narrative cheats and scenes included purely for shock value, the final 10 minutes of The Last Broadcast limit its enjoyability as a whole.

Last Broadcast, The (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:26
U.S. Release Date: 1998-10-23
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1