As far as found footage goes, GHOSTWATCH sits up high, reigning supreme.
The Last Broadcast. 1998. Directed & Written by Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler.
Starring David Beard, Jim Seward, Stefan Avalos, Lance Weiler, Rein Clabbers, Michele Pulaski, and Tom Brunt.
Unrated. 86 minutes.
Ever since I’d first seen The Last Broadcast a little over ten years ago, I’ve been conflicted by the film. Unlike so many failed fake documentary styled found footage horror movies these days, I find that The Last Broadcast genuinely culls the air of being real for a lot of the time. Long before stuff like Grave Encounters, Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler came up with an interesting little faux doc about a paranormal style show. What I find so good in this sense about this movie is that their show really feels real, it has that old school internet show feel to it; the acting is slightly stale, but in a way that they make the Fact or Fiction show feel like it’s these two dudes just filming things out on their own, beyond low budget. So that’s one of the things I do truly enjoy about this movie.
However, in the finale, the last act, Avalos and Weiler completely let this movie go off the rails. Personally, I was so into what was happening and I’d hoped that ultimately the explanation of what was being attributed to the Jersey Devil might end up being either unexplainable or just straight up supernatural. Instead, the creepiness and suspense, all the tension Avalas and Weiler built up for the first half to three-quarters of the film is squandered by a flimsy and awful climax, which does nothing but frustrate me.
While there are some excellent bits to The Last Broadcast, it’s hard to ignore how terribly fumbled the ending came out and it leaves a stain on everything else the filmmakers had tried to do up until that tipping point. At least this movie has something to boast about – it’s the first film to be filmed, edited, and screened entirely digital; no film was involved. While I’m a huge fan of film, I do enjoy digital in certain ways, so if anything this movie can say it pioneered new ways to make extremely low budget horror. Even if the movie shits the bed just as it could’ve turned into something spectacular.
The Last Broadcast tells the story of two local access cable filmmakers – Steven (Stefan Avalos) and Locus (Lance Weiler) – whose Fact or Fiction television show leads them around to various places in search of supernatural and ghostly entities. In a hunt for the legend of the Jersey Devil, Steve and Locus hire an assistant to help them – Jim Suerd (Jim Seward) is a self-styled psychic of sorts. They also plan to stream things on the internet through IRC, over radio, all sorts of things, and they’re armed with tons upon tons of equipment.
After heading into the woods, things begin to get more and more intense until finally only Suerd emerges from the woods, the other two disappeared. Suerd becomes the number one suspect. At the same time, a filmmaker named David Leigh (David Beard) starts to pour over the piles of tapes from Fact or Fiction’s filming in the Pine Barrens, and he seems to believe it was possibly not Suerd who was responsible for the disappearance of Steven and Locus after all. It may have been someone, or something, entirely different.
First of all, I find this film holds a pretty decent tone throughout its runtime. Starting early on there’s this great feel of tension, and I think at least until the terrible ending it holds up entirely. My favourite part about any horror film, or even any film in general, is when there’s a genuine atmosphere cultivated through music, direction, and the script.
There’s some interesting music in the movie, courtesy of director/writer Stefan Avalos (who apparently was a child prodigy with classical violin) and A.D. Roso. At certain times, the music is so damn creepy. It has this haunting quality which helps to make the tension hold in a lot of scenes. Great stuff. There’s just a ton of ominous sounds in the score, so often sitting right beneath the surface of the scenes and slowly seeping under the skin. If only the finale’s payoff were worth it, the music would’ve helped to make this incredible. Unfortunately, the script fails every other aspect of the film by simply petering out into nonsensicality.
Before I get to the writing, and then the terrible ending, I’d like to mention that I do think some of the acting was pretty well done. For instance, I found Jim Seward – who plays Jim Suerd – to be fairly unsettling most of the time. Especially when he early on, after meeting the Fact or Fiction hosts, has a psychic fit then ashy words appear on in his arm; putting these guys on or not, this scene was extremely creepy. His whole demeanour in general is spooky and I thought this helped the film immensely. Not all the acting was particularly stellar, but I do think Seward did a fine job with the material for his character. There’s a craziness and sadness all around about this character, which I found intriguing.
Concerning the found footage sub-genre, I think The Last Broadcast, while highly low-fi, doesn’t employ too much shakiness in the camerawork. There’s a lot of it, but there isn’t a string of scenes where they’re running through the woods and you can’t see anything whatsoever. While I love The Blair Witch Project wholeheartedly, the few real shaky scenes in that nauseated me; they didn’t take away from that movie, but it’s my only single complaint. At least, for all its faults, The Last Broadcast doesn’t go for much of that. The video quality – being an ultra almost non-existent budget film in 1998 – is pretty rough almost all of the time, yet there’s not scene after scene of rattling camera shots, bouncing up and down as someone holds onto it and runs for their life. So, in that manner, I do find the low-fi video plays well into everything because the whole Fact or Fiction show, their journey into the woods, it all feels quite natural and real. Essentially, I really feel like I’m watching some documentary slapped together by a bunch of amateur filmmakers, but it doesn’t make me not like this movie – that’s something I found genuine and enjoyable about the whole thing.
Now, I’ve got to get into the writing and the script. There’s an awesome story in here, and up until the finale’s ruination there is solid plot. For the first three quarters, maybe a little less, I think the story of The Last Broadcast holds up. While they’re going through all the motions – getting ready to go into the woods, Jim Suerd gets a little stranger than normal, then they finally get into the woods – I think the writing is well done. Something again regarding the found footage sub-genre is that we don’t have to go through a bunch of moments where someone is yelling “Turn off the camera”. While it works in some films, such as the aforementioned Blair Witch Project, I think it gets forced into too many other movies. This is because a lot of found footage movies go too formulaic, trying to add all the elements they feel need to be in there in order to make it correctly. Luckily for this film, it came before The Blair Witch Project and its success caused an absolute avalanche, still raging to this day, of found footage sub-genre efforts. So it avoids some of the pitfalls which are now associated with so many bad found footage movies today. In the process, I find The Last Broadcast more interesting than others because it’s not as typical. As I’ve mentioned several times already, the real feeling of the tapes and the characters/situations makes it work well.
Finally, we come to the ending to ruin all endings. I’ve got nothing against a seemingly supernatural horror turning out to be something more down to earth and real in the end. Not at all. For instance, though I love Stephen King’s book The Shining I find Stanley Kubrick brought a touch of family dynamics and real horror to an otherwise supernatural story. But here, there’s none of that. The ending works against everything else interesting happening throughout the film.
WARNING: To discuss fully, I have to spoil the ending. If you’ve not seen this yet, don’t go forward. If you do and you haven’t seen it, do not complain about spoilers. I shouldn’t have to warn people about this: I review films, this is a film review blog. I’m not giving previews, I’m reviewing after the fact. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
By having the finale basically take aim at the media and how we relate to/are affected by media, by making the David Leigh (Beard) character responsible for everything – murder and all – Avalos and Wiler take everything else tense and suspenseful and eerie about the script and obliterate it. The Last Broadcast could’ve ended in a much better fashion – even an open ended finish would’ve been incredible, to me! I would’ve walked away from this, had it closed with a more ambiguous finish, and thought this was one of the better early found footage films to have come out. Instead, I constantly bemoan anybody who says this is an excellent movie. It is not. The possible greatness is torn apart with the last 20 minutes or so, I just can’t even describe how ill handled the script becomes in the last quarter. Sad this hadn’t turned out better. So much potential.
Much like a recent film I enjoyed until the final 15 minutes The Canal, I was devastated to have invested so much in the story/plot of The Last Broadcast only to be fooled with the ending. Certainly I enjoyed a lot of what came before the finale – plenty of creepy scenes full of mysterious writing, ominous music, and low-fi terror tiptoeing around so many scenes. I’ve just had it, fed up, with movies that ruin their potential by copping out on an ending. It’s as if they either couldn’t think of anything else, or they were too afraid to leave the film on an open end, so rather than contemplate the best possible ending they could’ve drummed up the filmmakers find the path of least resistance. Instead of being shocking or unnerving, the end makes me roll my eyes into the back of my skull until it hurts.
I can only give this movie 2&1/2 stars. If the ending was better, this could’ve easily been a 4 out of 5 star horror. With the mashed in finale, The Last Broadcast is only a mediocre, if that, found footage horror effort. If ever a movie needed a good remake, it’s this one. Someone should pick up the rights and fix the ending; this could be one killer film if the writing were handled better.
Skinwalker Ranch. 2013. Dir. Devin McGinn & Co-directed by Steve Berg. Written by Adam Ohler.
Starring Taylor Bateman, Steve Berg, Michael Black, Erin Cahill, Carol Call, Kyle Davis, Mike Flynn, Jon Gries, Devin McGinn, and Michael Horse. Highland Film Group.
Rated R. 86 minutes.
If you haven’t heard of Skinwalker Ranch before, the actual location, it’s a large property of nearly 500-acres in the southeastern part of Utah. The ranch came to worldwide attention after appearing in the Salt Lake City news, as well as being covered in a series of articles by journalist George Knapp, which claimed a family bought the property and later experienced a various number of strange, unexplainable events ranging from chupacabra-like animals roaming the property to alien/UFO sightings, and much more. Of course, all that can be taken lightly because I certainly haven’t seen anything conclusive about this. I like to scour the internet late at night when I’m bored – topics usually include paranormal stuff and serial killers, et cetera – anything creepy. Even further, the movie Skinwalker Ranch is quite loosely based on the events talked about in reference to the actual location. Let’s just say… this is – inspired by certain supposedly true events.
A man named Hoyt (Jon Gries) buys the infamous ranch with great plans. Unfortunately, Hoyt’s life is soon thrown into disarray when his son suddenly disappears into thin air, right in front of him and his wife’s eyes. A team of researchers come in to investigate the paranormal phenomena happening around the ranch. They discover bumps in the night. Images of a small boy running through the kitchen at the exact same hour of the night, every single night. One evening, a massive wolf-like beast appears in the fields around the ranch, terrorizing everyone. It’s obvious Skinwalker Ranch is plagued by otherworldly things. The real turning point comes when a Native American man comes to bless the property in aid and ends up seemingly almost experiencing a heart attack – he tells them they’ve “got to get the fuck out of here“. From there, everything slowly gets more sinister. As you’d likely expect.
There isn’t a whole lot to love in Skinwalker Ranch honestly, but it’s not terrible. I opted to watch it twice. First time around I really enjoyed it because of the visual effects, which are certainly great. When I decided to review it, as I always do with a movie I haven’t seen too recently, I re-watched the film. Needless to say, I came out the second time realizing I didn’t really enjoy the film. It’s flashy and has a couple decent scares, or more so thrills, but overall nothing special.
The one truly creepy moment was the aforementioned scene involving the Native American gentleman who gathers Hoyt and the crew around a fire to help bless the ranch. Before his heart attack-like affliction, he seems to see something in the distance, as he is chanting a Native American sort of song. His eyes are wide and he stares off while still chanting. Then it strikes him. He gets out of there so quickly afterwards it’s really unsettling, and not to mention he tells them to “get the fuck out of there“. His demeanour goes from one end of the spectrum to another in a heartbeat. The actor really helped by doing a good job.
Most of what I didn’t enjoy about this film is that it uses some really tired and played out cliches. For instance, you get the typical child ghosts. And that would be fine – if you didn’t have them running through rooms in ghostly fashion, the obligatory creepy little girl ghost with her mouth hanging open and strange black vein-like striations going up her face. Those sort of things are really out of place most of the time. In fact, I’d go as far to say that those types of creepy kids are very much a significant trademark of Asian horror – they’ve got that area locked down, and well-done in many of those foreign movies. Here, it feels like they just couldn’t find any other way to make the kids creepy. It had to be the typical, run of the mill scary kid; like an archetype, a stamp they bring out for the crap horror movies.
What I did enjoy were the visual effects. Particularly, there’s a wolf-like creature that terrorizes the ranch on several occasions. Not only were the effects on the creature very good, they also worked to make things scary and tense. I liked one scene where the wolf shows up out of nowhere, and proceeds to push the car around with a few people inside – sort of reminded me of a good creature feature.
Also, there’s a scene with a large alien stalking through the house. The effects here were also nice. I liked the look of the alien. It was imposing and also not the typical ‘grey’ alien design; at least there was something fresh among a lot of the stale garbage in this film.
The only performance in this movie worth talking about is Jon Gries. Even then, there isn’t much to go on about other than he played his part well. If it weren’t for him, and his character as well, I probably would’ve lost interest a lot quicker than I did while re-watching this movie. He is a good character actor who I always enjoy seeing. Gries is good at playing scarred characters; whether it’s a person who has succumbed to their own demons, or one acted upon terribly by outside forces, he has a good range for these types of roles. It’s too bad he didn’t have any other good characters to bounce off – most of the others weren’t particularly unlikeable, they just weren’t exactly charismatic either. Gries was the only one who stood out in any way, shape, or form. And like I pointed out, there isn’t a whole lot for Gries to do other than act distraught; little else.
Overall I can give this a film 2 stars out of 5. Not a complete waste of time because I do like how they used the found footage sub-genre to make this feel like a real look into the actual Skinwalker Ranch location while also combining that style with the use of, often, heavy special effects. Whereas I enjoy something more like what As Above, So Below accomplished this year with their combination of found footage and effects, Skinwalker Ranch falls short because the story is too familiar. All the genre elements they try to force into the plot really only end up leaving the whole thing feeling off-balance. Furthermore, without a strong plot there’s really no room for any truly great characters, and lacking such characters there will always be missing great performances. Gries holds up his small end of the bargain, but other than him this film is pretty much a wash in terms of acting. The special effects are great at times and certainly provide some creepy, as well as thrilling moments. Regardless, the effects can’t hold the movie up for its entirety.
I wouldn’t rush to try and see this movie. If you’ve got time to kill and want to see a little horror movie with some paranormal/supernatural elements, then throw it on. But if you want a found footage movie with something more to offer, there are absolutely better ways to enjoy the sub-genre.