In almost every found-footage movie, there’s a much better non-found-footage movie. The entire idea of found-footage becomes a formal hindrance in which the mere act of filming crazy stuff going on requires constant justification.
Or to put it another way, why don’t these people just drop the camera and run already?! I mean, seriously?
That’s just one of the things that came to mind while watching They’re Watching, a film undone by its wishy-washy handling of the found-footage form. It’s a found-footage movie that can’t even abide by the basic diegetic rules of its own world.
Directors: Jay Lender and Micah Wright
Release Date: March 25, 2016 (limited, VOD)
They’re Watching was made by first-time directors Jay Lender and Micah Wright. Both have a background in enjoyably fun Nickelodeon animated shows (SpongeBob, Angry Beavers, Hey Arnold!), though Wright has also worked in comics and videogames for years, most notably as a co-writer on Call of Duty: Black Ops II. The set-up is sort of promising, at least if the movie were handled differently.
A home improvement reality show returns to the remote village of Pavlovka to catch up with two of its previous subjects, an American named Becky (Brigid Brannagh) and her townie husband Goran (Cristian Balint). Their fixer-upper house is a rundown hovel, the perfect place for spooky chicanery. The previous tenant must have been The Blair Witch. The TV crew is comprised of a group of Starbucks-obsessed ugly Americans straight out of The Big Book of Horror Cliches: a horndog bro (Kris Lemche), a handsome guy haunted by his experiences as a war journalist (David Alpay), a hard-nosed ice queen producer (Carrie Genzel), and a naive upstart straight out of film school (Mia Faith).
There’s something not right in this town and the locals seem suspicious of the outsiders and their intentions. Some of these moments are unnerving since they play on the paranoia of being watched while watching others and seeing something you weren’t meant to see. Villagers appear on camera frozen and gawping as the crew nervously giggles it off–the first rule of ugly Americanism is you don’t realize you’re an ugly American. The only trusting fellow is a grifting local named Dimitri (Vladimir Filat), who at least camps up the staid proceedings whenever he’s on screen, although he’s another cliche from Horror-Abroad edition of The Big Book.
In the brief instances of They’re Watching that sort of work, I felt like I was watching some weird combination of Borat and The Wicker Man. Too bad it doesn’t work (though maybe someday someone can do that movie). One of They’re Watching‘s most notable violations of the found-footage form is the film’s score. I say violation because the movie is trying to play things semi-straightfaced rather than trying to call attention to the inherent artifice of the found-footage movie. The music comes on sinister when we’re meant to sense something sinister, much like it would in any other film not comprised of supposedly raw footage. It made me wonder why make They’re Watching a found-footage movie at all.
What’s worse, They’re Watching doesn’t go all the way with its initial sense of paranoia. The “They’re” part and the “Watching” part of They’re Watching are almost immaterial. The mutual suspicion between the crew and the village folk? Not much to it, really, as we careen into a final-act twist and a supernatural schlockfest, albeit one that’s enjoyable for what it is even though it doesn’t fit in with everything else.
More than the found-footage stuff, the aimless narrative is the main thing that undermines They’re Watching. There’s no sense of payoff once the blue magic lightning shows up and splatters people real good. It’s as if we’re watching a different movie at that point, especially since we mostly watched characters kill time on camera while awaiting their eventual first-person demise. Come to think of it, one of the character’s deaths is spoiled at the very beginning of the movie. Yes, They’re Watching is–in violation of the found-footage form–essentially a pseudo-flashback.
What a waste of perfectly good blue magic lightning.