More terror in the woods
Just as Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were planning their trip into the Maryland woods to film The Blair Witch Project, Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler were editing their own backwoods mockumentary horror story. Comparison of the two films is inescapable, as the similarities are striking. However, once the format and subject matter had been settled upon, it’s almost inevitable that two features will come up with many of the same ideas. Think back a few decades and note the similarities in how first time directors made low budget horror films of that time: Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead all save money by setting their assaults in little houses in the big woods.
Actually, the two films are more different than they are similar (see below for comparison). The Blair Witch Project is much earthier, at heart the distillation of a scary campfire tale, and its technique nearly equals the absence of any director at all. The Last Broadcast is much less improvisational and much more technically involved, constantly playing with the shot-on-video medium – stretching its boundaries in much the same way Oliver Stone stretched the medium of film with Natural Born Killers. One film is about chaos and the other is about control.
In 1995, four young low budget local TV stars went into the New Jersey woods to broadcast their public access cable show for the last time. Only one of them made it back alive. Two years later, documentary filmmaker David Leigh (Beard) wants to tell the story behind the “Fact or Fiction” Murders. The lone survivor, phony psychic Jim Suerd (Seward), was tried and convicted of the brutal murders of his companions. The footage shot by the “Fact or Fiction” crew, who had hiked into the woods for a live cable, radio, and web broadcast, was used as evidence against Suerd, but Leigh finds that it tells another story – one that is even more horrific.
The Last Broadcast follows the plan that Myrick and Sanchez originally had for Blair Witch but abandoned when the Project grew in a more improvisational direction – shooting the story as a true finished documentary. The characters are only revealed through the filter of the filmmaker’s view. Avalos and Weiler are brilliant at manipulating all the elements of the form, unveiling a full bag of post-production tricks. The film’s power builds in intensity throughout, until near the end when it almost lost me entirely. In a confusing revelatory sequence, the film breaks format, and this move almost breaks the film. I know what they were going for, but they’ve done such a wonderful job of subtly building tension while making a point about the manipulative nature of video journalism up to that point that the effect of changing gears is too jarring, and breaks the spell. The ending is very clever, but it’s a more mundane level of clever than what has come before.
In the behind-the-scenes features, and also in their commentary track, Avalos and Weiler go into great detail, showing just how much production value is available for so little money in the digital age. They also explain how The Last Broadcast came to be the first feature film to be shot and projected (via satellite) totally in digital form. While their commitment to being desktop movie pioneers is admirable, their decision not to transfer the movie to film may have ironically robbed them of the attention that eventually went to The Blair Witch Project a year later. Fact is stranger than fiction.
The DVD’s production is also an artifact of the age we live in. While only a few years ago it was necessary to go to great expense to produce a Laserdisc that would present this kind of package, now DVD presentations of superior depth and quality can be produced by independents relatively inexpensively. Disney got a lot of publicity when their DVD of A Bug’s Life was transferred direct from digital source. Fox and Lucasfilm made even more noise about The Phantom Menace being digitally distributed. Avalos and Weiler have shown that this kind of magic is available to any that dare use it.
The handy Blair Witch Project vs. Last Broadcast comparison chart:
|Two guys and a girl disappear in the woods of Maryland while making a documentary about the Blair Witch||Three guys are massacred while in the woods of New Jersey while making a live TV show about the Jersey Devil|
|Footage found buried under the walls of an ancient cabin||Footage found at campsite, then more mailed to documentarian|
|Trio whereabouts unknown||Trio butchered, survivor charged|
|Footage mix of b/w film and video assembled by editor and presented raw||Footage on videotape assembled, edited and used as part of documentary about murders|
|Made for “the price of a midsize sedan”||Made for “around 900 dollars”|
|Picked up for distribution for around 5 million dollars, becomes highest grossing independent of all time||First film projected digitally via satellite, makers pass on on-film distribution deal|
|Made by two guys with a dream||Made by two guys with a dream|
|98% improvised by actors shooting their own footage||Heavily scripted and storyboarded with lots of post production|
|Promoted with website pretending it’s all real||Promoted with website pretending it’s all real|
|Blair Witch made up folklore||Jersey Devil real folklore|