They’re Watching arrives at a time when the found footage horror genre has felt a little played out for a few years, a scrapyard populated with films like The Gallows and The Pyramid. And on the surface, it can seem like just another damp log on the dwindling fire of the horror subgenre. But They’re Watching has a bit more spark in it than you might think, creating not only a surprisingly funny ride, but one that uses the found footage format to examine the act of looking.
The film is constructed from the footage of a low budget House Hunters style television show. The crew is returning to a rural village in Moldova to record a follow up with Becky (Brigid Brannagh, Army Wives), an artist who moved into an isolated house six months before with her boyfriend, Goran. Much of the first act is dedicated to production veterans Alex (Kris Lemche, Final Destination 3) and Greg (David Alpay, Man of the Year) showing Sarah (Mia Faith, Dracano), a new production assistant out of film school, the ropes. Most importantly, how to deal with the show’s high-strung and verbally abusive producer, Kate (Carrie Genzel, Watchmen). As the crew start shooting, they run into problems with the superstitious locals and discover that there’s something not quite right with Becky’s new house. Then things start to get bloody.
They’re Watching is the directorial debut of Jay Lender and Micah Wright, the writers of the SpongeBob SquarePants and Call of Duty: Black Ops, respectively. Not exactly the expected pedigree for found footage horror, but the duo prove? suited to the job. Firstly, the film is a comedy first, horror film second. The crew is markedly chattier than most found footage subjects, allowing Lender and Wright, the writers here too, a chance to show off their comedic chops. Things move along at a steady pace, and the film does a good job of balancing the humor with a mounting sense of foreboding.
The documentary crew is a cliché for the genre, but it gives the characters a reason to keep the cameras rolling. It’s not until the third act that the film resorts to the ‘people need to see what’s happening’ trope and the film’s half handed attempt at realism slips through its fingers. Then again, by that point, the film has ratcheted things up to 11 and realism is entirely beside the point. Which is a good thing, since that’s when the constraints of the film’s budget really start to show, and had Lender and Wright not crafted such a delightfully zany ride, we might not have been willing to take the plunge with them come the finale.
Most found footage films are, on a meta-cinematic level, interested in how events are recorded, and They’re Watching is no exception. But while most of these films keep their investigation of the gaze surface level, this film dives deep, arguably making the act of watching the entire focus of the film. I mean, the film is called They’re Watching. And Lender and Wright actually offer up a pretty interesting investigation of how the camera separates the recorded from the recorder. Whether its Greg’s damaged past as a war photographer, the local’s sensitivity to being recorded, or Alex keeping footage of Kate’s illicit affair to use as leverage, all the major plotlines in the film revolve around recording. It’s admirable the film offers up such a nuanced investigation of the act of looking, while still managing to a lot of fun to watch itself.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
They’re Watching is one of the zaniest movies you’ll see this year. If you’re looking for a raucous 90 minutes, you could do far worse. If you’re looking for something a bit more substantial, They’re Watching does have enough subtext to sink your teeth into. Whatever you’re looking for, it’s hard not to have a good time watching.