Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Retroview: THE LAST BROADCAST
Two public access tv hosts try to save the sinking ratings of their paranormal show, Fact or Fiction, by taking up a suggestion sent in by a viewer to investigate the legendary Jersey Devil. The Jersey Devil is a cryptid like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot and has been part of the folklore of the Pine Barrens area for centuries. Perfect. So the guys pack a paranormal sound recordist and a psychic and head off to the woods to look for the monster. Hang on ...
This film begins with a number of talking heads including the director relating how what we are about to see is a murder case. Four men went into the woods and one came out. Two mauled bodies were found and one disappeared. The survivor, the psychic, has been charged, tried and convicted for the murder of the others but has died in prison.
What we get from this point on is a slowly tightening weave of interviews, video from the excursion and the director's own narration as he investigates the case, being convinced that James the psychic was innocent of murder.
This is not a found footage film in the sense that it has come to be applied (an edit of raw footage assembled and presented as a finished fiction feature) but a more of a mockumentary. There is a music score throughout and the sole source of raw footage is from the incident. The difference creates the sense of reportage which in turn supports the veracity of the whole. Regardless of genre see also This is Spinal Tap or more recently (and closer in intent) Lake Mungo.
And then in the third act we are given a twist which necessitates a third party which blows pretty much everything we've already seen out of its closed circuit and into ... well, where? I'm not going to spoil anything but it is easy to find a warning about this anywhere with a Google search without jepoardising a fresh first screening. While I an fond of fourth wall renovation whether used comically or not I cannot explain this one: while the change to it happens in swift muscular fashion there is nothing further offered as to why it has happened. We are left to conclude that it was just easier to complete the picture if a literally new angle was introduced. And then the final shot introduces something else again and bids us ask further questions about the purpose of the entire exercise. This is the mystery of The Last Broadcast but rather than leave us haunted by mystery it just makes us shake our heads and ask what the point was.
The Blair Witch Project appeared at the end of the year after The Last Broadcast was released. If you were a moviegoer back in the terrible summer o' '99 you will remember its internet marketing, one of the first viral campaigns. It was enjoyable buying into it. The website (not even blockbusters had their own sites at the time) offered such delicious teases in video snippets and a forum all cloaked in gloomy backgrounds and creepy audio. The meme of its actuality was propagated but it was needless. The movie worked regardless. And how.
What they got right was to brush the verifiers (tv-style interviews) away and dive straight down among the shoulders of the players, the people we already know have gone missing never to be found. What we saw once this was established was the steady breakdown of the team's internal relations in a setting that increasingly seemed inescapable. A mounting dread was worsened by some genuinely terrifying incidents and then by the end we descend with them into a hopeless darkness.
The BWP's approach was old decades before its release and more recently Jean Teddy Filippe's extraordinary series of very short films The Forbidden Files showed the same thing could be achieved in miniature. But BWP still works as a feature film. Not the first found footage feature it became the one to cover in the following decade and with very little popular or critical success until Paranormal Activity and Chronicle. Too many cover versions missed the point.
While Blair Witch has not been diminished by its descendants The Last Broadcast has. Not just right out of the gate with BWP but in later examples of the faux documentary like Lake Mungo which used the veracity of improv interviews to very clever and unsettling effect and managed its found footage into real drama.
But while The Last Broadcast might sit crushed beneath an avalanche of the greater success of its followers it remains a curio rather than a pioneer though pioneer it is. It was apart from anything else deemed the first desktop feature (made entirely on digital video and assembled at home). But it has more than its share of merits in its effectively designed dread and use of the interviews to pose more questions than they answered (the interview or testimony in a mystery scenario must frustrate by the incompleteness of its information). But I can't help feeling that if the ending had been better conceived, its potential for the extraordinary realised, it would have been a game-changer. Even then, I wonder, would Blair Witch still eclipse it as a superior imitator? The answer is lost to us.