Despite Paranormal Activity's success, it's still overshadowed by The Blair Witch Project which was a cinematic milestone when it was released in 1999. Whether you thought it was good or bad, the film revolutionised ideas of online marketing, word-of-mouth buzz, and what sort of effects could be achieved on a low budget. But it was hardly the first found footage film ever. That honour more likely goes to something like Cannibal Holocaust. One film that predated Blair Witch was The Last Broadcast that was released in 1998, and in a lot of ways I feel it's a superior film.
The Last Broadcast is a fictionalised documentary that mixes in a lot of found footage to tell the story of a group of men who went out in the New Jersey Pine Barrens to try and capture the mythical Jersey Devil on camera. The documentary is told after the events and sees a filmmaker interviewing various people to reconstruct exactly what happened to the men. You see, three of them died during the trip and only one, a supposed psychic, survived but he was arrested and hung himself in his cell before he could be properly questioned. Did the Jersey Devil really kill them? Or was it the psychic? Can the filmmaker sift through the footage to find the truth?
Honestly, this film is a lot of fun. It's a small cast and a very low budget (around $12,000 reportedly) but there's a pleasing amount of professionalism all round. None of the actors come off as anything less than genuine. This is particularly surprising as many of the interviewees were just ordinary folk off the street. Also, the film holds the honour of being the first professional release that was completely edited on a desktop computer using consumer software.
The best performances come from the two leads Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos (also the writers and directors) who play the hosts of a cheap public access “Fact or Fiction” show. The fact that they are obviously friends in real-life already makes their passive/aggressive double act on the show very convincing. Also, having it be a public access show is a very canny way of keeping within their budget and explaining why the group are so small and under-equipped for their trip. Jim Seward also does a great job as the schizophrenic psychic, painting a convincing portrait of a troubled young man.
Having it be a documentary rather than just found footage also allows for the documentary maker to comment over some of the action. For instance we watch a bit where the psychic Jim performs a trick to convince Lance and Stefan he's genuinely gifted meanwhile the voiceover explains exactly how he faked it. What's also impressive is that the film/documentary genuinely builds an brooding atmosphere of dread from about the mid-point. We slowly get revelation after revelation which gives the whole thing nice, traditional three-act structure.
I can't really pinpoint much that the film does wrong per se. The fictitious documentary maker David Leigh perhaps gives a little bit of flat performance when he's on camera compared to the rest of the cast but other than that the documentary is well paced and genuinely intriguing. Perhaps the ending doesn't strike the note of terror that Blair Witch did but it does do something very innovative. Without spoiling it the film goes in a very creepy left field direction towards the end.
All in all, The Last Broadcast very underrated little film and it's a shame it didn't get more notice. What I like about the film is that it's more than just some shaky footage with a few creepy shots and jump scares, it's a sustained narrative with clever comments on voyeurism and the human appetite for answers.