A Devil of a Time In the Barrens

by Arthur B

The Last Broadcast might or might not have kicked off the boom in found footage and mockumentary horror movies, but it is an excellent early example of the form.
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Steven “Johnny” Akvast (Stefan Avalos) and Locus Wheeler (Lance Weiler) are the hosts of Fact Or Fiction, a New Jersey public access cable show about the paranormal which is watched as much for amusement value at its incompetent production values as for actual interest in its subject matter. Kicking off in 1995, the show has its moment of popularity before its fortunes begin to wane as the joke starts to wear thin. Come December, they decide to do something a bit more spectacular than their typical studio chat - namely, a live broadcast from the depths of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, with material going out live on the Internet, cable, and amateur radio, where they would attempt to hunt down the Jersey Devil.

Roping in sound engineer and electronic voice phenomena enthusiast Rein Clacklin (Rein Clabbers) as their sound man and Jim Suerd (James Seward), a purported psychic (and actual stage magician and hoaxer) who claims that he can use his powers to get them to the right location to find the Jersey Devil, they set off. Only Suerd ever returns; Akvast is never found, but the mutilated bodies of Wheeler and Clacklin are eventually discovered. It’s assumed to be an open and shut case, with Suerd the obvious suspect; he’s railroaded through a trial which is heavy on circumstantial evidence and low on actual material unequivocally connecting Suerd to the deaths. (There’s some bloodstains on his clothes that provide a DNA match… but it seems unthinkable that he’d be able to do what was done to those bodies and only get a few blood spots on his clothing, rather than completely drenching it.)

Later, in 1997, documentary filmmaker David Leigh (David Beard) decides to investigate - and it’s his documentary about the case which we watch, filled out with extensive footage from the Fact Or Fiction archives and the fatal New Jersey shoot. Midway through his production process, Suerd dies under unexplained circumstances in prison; Leigh also anonymously receives footage from the Pine Barrens incident that never made it to the hands of the authorities. Can he work with Michelle Monarch (Michele Pulaski) to reconstruct the missing tape and uncover the truth behind… The Last Broadcast?

Avalos and Wheeler, as well as playing the lead hosts of Fact Or Fiction, were really the driving force behind The Last Broadcast: they wrote, directed, and produced it, and Avalos collaborated with A.D. Roso on the soundtrack. It’s very much a grassroots effort, though to their credit they do an awful lot with the limited resources available to them. Apparently the budget of the movie ran to some $900 - but between shooting it digitally rather than with film and coming up with a then-novel method of digital distribution, Avalos and Wheeler were clearly ahead of their time when it came to making such a tight budget work for them.

In particular, the fact that much of the footage diegetically hails from public access cable means that even though Avalos and Wheeler aren’t working with brilliant special effects, high-quality film, or especially great actors, it all comes across exactly how you’d expect it to come across - the non-diegetic shortcomings of the production become diegetic features that serve the story.

Emerging as it did in 1998, the movie deserves props for being ahead of the pack of coming up with ways of using the Internet which are realistic and true to the actual Internet of the era - IRC and the like - rather than the fake cartoon version of the Internet Hollywood was more interested in using at the time. In particular, the Internet element provides an insight into a deeper layer of the story than the one which is directly and unambiguously presented to us onscreen.

A lot is made of the fact that they were going to simultaneously have an Internet component of the broadcast, and we are clearly shown that Suerd was actively participating in an IRC chat before the killings happened, which ties in with the fact that in their own pioneering way the Fact Or Fiction crew had an “IRC call-in” aspect of their show where they answered anonymous messages from the Internet - from which the idea of the Jersey Devil hunt came.

We can infer that the actual killer in some respects was involved in nudging the duo into undertaking the Jersey Devil project via IRC, and on a careful rewatch this is more evident - and we can even pick up something resembling a motive. That said, the revelation of who did it in some respects prompts deeper questions about whether there’s something even more going on there. If this was a mere human slaying other humans, how did Akvast’s body completely disappear? What killed Suerd in prison? Leigh constantly asks us “What is the Jersey Devil?” - but there doesn’t seem to be any authentic Jersey Devil connection to the killings beyond the fact that it was the object of this particular snark hunt - or was there?

Like Resurrecting the Street Walker, it’s a found footage film which creates extensive evidence that there’s much more going on under the surface than those producing the diegetic documentary we are watching are telling us, though whereas in that movie it seems to be because the documentarians don’t realise that there’s something up there, here it comes down to Leigh having his own agenda, one which would naturally prompt him to construct a misleading case. We are given some insight into his agenda at the end of the movie, when the dramatic decision is taken to shift out of the mockumentary approach into a third-person view which allows us to see something of the truth, though not all of it. (That said, this segment is also the weakest part of the film - by stepping outside of the documentary approach it loses its best excuse for its production shortcomings, and it lasts excessively long; it could have been cut down brutally to just the first minute and last couple of minutes and conveyed more or less the same point without wearing on the viewer.)

In some reviews and some of the promotional material of DVD releases it’s claimed that The Last Broadcast preceded and inspired The Blair Witch Project, but this seems unlikely - production on that began nearly half a year before The Last Broadcast was released. It is kind of a shame that someone in the production and distribution chain saw fit to latch onto this fallacy, because inspiration or not The Last Broadcast remains a substantially more interesting take on the found footage genre that doesn’t deserve the obscurity it currently enjoys.
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