❉ We conclude our look back at the found footage films that lead up to ‘The Blair Witch Project’, with 1998’s ‘The Last Broadcast’.
“Three filmmakers are killed while trying to find evidence of the legendary Jersey Devil. Their fourth member is convicted of the killings. A documentary-maker attempts to uncover the truth.”
You’ll Like This If You Like…
Any documentary that promises to reveal the truth of something; the films of M. Night Shyamalan.
A great film for the first eighty-five minutes, the twist is sufficiently stupid to ruin the whole experience.
The Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey in the USA.
Unbelievably, the man making the documentary.
Why Are You Still Filming?
Not a question asked by anyone, because the director gives up filming at the crucial moment and we abandon the genre completely.
Review and Analysis
There are three types of twist endings in films: the obvious; the unexpected (which makes sense of much of what has happened yet still surprises the viewer); and the completely-out-of-left-field. This features the third type, in a twist so ridiculous that it undermines everything that has gone before.
The premise is simple (and although original here, would come to dominate the genre: this may not have had the impact Blair Witch had, but it is no less important in the development of the found footage film) – two young men host a cable TV show called Fact or Fiction. With the prospect of cancellation looming over them, they decide on a make-or-break live broadcast, to be simultaneously shown as a webcast, on location from the Pine Barrens as they search for the Jersey Devil, a cryptid reported to roam the area. Taking with them an alleged psychic and another crew member, they die horribly – the police suspect the psychic.
Enter our director, a documentary maker eager to uncover the truth. Although convicted by a jury, our director (David Leigh) believes the psychic to be innocent and wrongfully imprisoned.
All of this is fine, and the film introduces the set up well. True, there are some flaws to the plot (for one thing, the presenters hire a director who never actually goes out on to the location. His presence is a complete red herring, and he’s presumably there just to be a suspect. For another thing, the idea of this live broadcast/webcast is never remotely explained. As all the crew seem to have are a couple of cameras and a tent, how they manage to broadcast this is anyone’s guess. Not that anyone ever actually talks about the broadcast – all we are ever told is that their footage was recovered but lacked recordings of the final moments), but it just about works, and the addition of talk about the internet (and the interaction the TV show has with the online audience) is very much ahead of its time.
Leigh interviews everyone involved, no matter how peripheral, and (despite his truly monotonous voiceover, which sounds more like the communications of a particularly dull somnambulist) we are willing to buy into this mystery.
When a badly damaged tape is sent to Leigh, just after the psychic dies mysteriously in prison (it’s mysterious because we’re never told how he died) things hot up. The tape is sent to a video restorer and it soon becomes clear that the tape shows the murders, perhaps even the identity of the killer if the restorer can work her magic on the footage.
And this is when things fall apart completely. The footage reveals that Leigh is the killer. Before the restorer can inform the police, Leigh kills her (very ham-fistedly: one wonders how he managed to kill three people out in the woods), the film switching instantly to a traditionally-shot narrative and ruining any suspense raised so far. Leigh goes off into the Barrens and talks to his camera. The end.
I’m all for twists in films. If they’re unexpected, I like them. True, this twist is very unexpected, but that’s mainly because it makes no sense, and it raises far more questions than it answers. How did Leigh arrange for the TV team to be in the Pine Barrens at that place and time? What happened to the missing body (only two were found)? How did he implicate the psychic? How did the psychic die? Who sent him the missing tape? Why make the documentary if he knew he was the killer? Why did he kill them? None of these questions are answered.
If one wanted to explain the events, then it’s possible that Leigh suffers from an extreme case of multiple personality disorder, but there’s no suggestion of that anywhere in the film, and even then it leaves several of the questions unanswered. It’s a desperately unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise entertaining film, particularly when the better resolution almost takes place (all the restorer had to do was react in horror to the face revealed by her restoration, gasp something along the lines of “My God, it’s real,” as we see some hideous creature rip Leigh to shreds in the Barrens, confirming the reality of the Jersey Devil and offering an ending that would haunt the viewer for life. It’s not an original idea now, but back in the late ‘90s it would have ensured this film was a hit).
Instead we have a film that does well for most of the running time, then falls apart spectacularly at the end. As a result, this was all but forgotten when a film with vague similarities was just around the corner, and was going to put the found footage film on the map permanently.
Availability: Out on DVD worldwide.
❉ Check out our Found Footage 101 series: https://wearecult.rocks/tag/found-footage-101