Found footage horror lends itself well to films about cryptids. Handheld cameras and glimpses of strange creatures create an air of authenticity to the legend, continually building the mythos of the cryptid. So it makes sense that perhaps the first found-footage movie, THE LAST BROADCAST (1998), is centered on such a creature. In this case, the creature is the Jersey Devil.
THE LAST BROADCAST is formatted as a pseudo-documentary that is digging into the mysterious deaths and disappearances of three men in the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey. Four men went into the desolate place to film for the public access show, Fact or Fiction, and only one made it out. Filmmaker David Leigh wants to understand what may have happened to the film crew and if the one who survived is truly guilty of the crime.
The crew was initially heading to the Pine Barrens to investigate the legendary Jersey Devil, who is said to haunt the area. The Jersey Devil has been a part of Southern Jersey folklore for over 300 years. It is a creature said to have the head of a horse, wings of a bat, small arms with clawed hands, cloven hooves, and a tail. But the creature has surprisingly humanoid origins. The tale goes that when Jane Leeds, or Mother Leeds, learned she was pregnant with her 13th child, she cursed the child out of frustration. When the child was born, it quickly morphed into what we call the Jersey Devil and it flew up the chimney and out into the wilds of New Jersey. In some versions of the tale, the creature devoured its mother and her midwives before fleeing. Regardless, this is a cryptid with a violent streak and a nasty temper.
For centuries, stories of the creature have pervaded the region, telling a tale of a winged creature who attacks both adults and children. It has become an integral part of New Jersey’s history and is discussed almost with pride. However, while the Jersey Devil is a well-known legend, it really isn’t the focus of THE LAST BROADCAST. Instead, he operates as a haunting background to a story about the brutal murders of three men. This version of the cryptid follows traditional assumptions about the Jersey Devil’s violence and its ruthless nature. The bodies are torn apart and covered an abnormally large amount of blood. It doesn’t seem possible that a person could inflict so much damage.
Despite these acts of violence and the name of the Jersey Devil, THE LAST BROADCAST is primarily about accessing the truth and how video can help us access, or deny, that truth rather than the cryptid itself. The monster lurks in the background, its leathery wings hovering just above our heads as Leigh tries to prove a man’s innocence through found footage.
The Jersey Devil legend, then, serves as a foil to the film’s focus on rapidly evolving technology. THE LAST BROADCAST is considered one of the first found-footage horror movies, and has been cited as the inspiration for THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1998). Much of the film looks at the literal format of these tapes and how the newborn Internet was changing how movies are made. But one thing that doesn’t change is the legend of the Jersey Devil. This 300-year-old tale has remained constant, a way to keep us comforted and grounded amidst a rapidly-evolving world. This use of the Jersey Devil then proves the power of myth even in a digital world. No matter how advanced our tech is or how expensive our cameras are, there is something so visceral and deeply terrifying about a legend that has been around for centuries. It is a quick answer to a complicated question, and Leigh is not satisfied with that answer.
THE LAST BROADCAST is barely a cryptid movie, and instead feels like a true crime documentary. But it is still a fascinating look at how we as a species are so invested in tales from centuries past. It also grapples with the then-role of the Internet and what it means to be able to access the world in just a few clicks. If you’re looking for a horror movie about the actual Jersey Devil, perhaps this isn’t for you. But, if you’re looking for a complex investigation of the past, present, and future all filmed on tape, this is the perfect film to get lost in.
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