THEY’RE WATCHING Review
Directors: Jay Lender and Micah Wright
THEY’RE WATCHING is currently trending on Netflix, and I can certainly see why. Proudly proclaiming that its chief creative constituents consist of a former writer for SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS and a head honcho on CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS II, those tidbits alone are motivation to give the film at least a cursory click. Of course, considering that this is a found footage horror-comedy, the cards are more than stacked against it for any hope of competency. What is most frustrating about the film once the credits roll is that for well over 75 percent of it, it manages to defy the odds and be genuinely entertaining and enjoyable. However, I will rest my case that this is one of the most egregious examples of a third act entirely destroying a horror film.
Film school brat Sarah (Mia Faith), douchebag cameraman Alex (Kris Lemche), foul-mouthed producer Kate (Carrie Genzel), and golden boy Greg (David Alpay) are the crew of a home improvement show travelling to Moldova. Their goal is to film an episode on Becky (Brigid Brannagh), an American potter who has been hard at work converting an old abandoned home into an art studio. While perhaps not reinventing the wheel, the fact that the characters are involved with a television show at least gives the camera a reason to continue to roll throughout the film, which is more than can be said for most found footage. As one thing leads to another and the loud, ignorant Americans go about ruffling the feathers of the sleepy and highly superstitious town of Pavlovka, rumors begin to fly surrounding the local legend of a witch. The town and its denizens soon become progressively less friendly towards their involvement in local life.
Except their involvement in the local basement punk scene
It’s a general concept we’ve seen time and time again, but THEY’RE WATCHING’s main saving grace is its tonal refreshment. Perhaps because of Jay Lender’s Nickelodeon legacy, the film puts most of its eggs in the amusement basket, and succeeds far more often than it doesn’t. In fact, for large segments of the first and second acts, THEY’RE WATCHING is not distinguishable as a horror film, which is both a point for and against it. Because of its comedic chops, largely carried by the absolutely delightful and infectious Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko), Moldova’s sole real estate broker, the competent scenes of traditional found footage fare sprinkled throughout are rendered middling and generally ineffective apart from two nasty reveals as things are heating up. But, however non-frightening THEY’RE WATCHING may be, it still at least checks the fundamental box for entertainment value, a marked improvement on the recent swath of self-important installments.
While THEY’RE WATCHING may not be an impressive demonstration of horror tropes in and of its own right, its narrative and characters are surprisingly well-written and refute many of the stereotypical beats we’ve become accustomed to. The horror blueprint of a group of loud, ignorant Americans invading a foreign locale and fatally enraging locals has been seen ad nauseum, but THEY’RE WATCHING manages to include a red herring in terms of just what exactly the locals want and just who exactly they think the witch is. Throwing us a few peaks and valleys in terms of friendly relations between the film crew and the denizens of Pavlovka, tension is juggled with unusual panache. We’re even legitimately sad when a misunderstanding in a bar effectively severs any hope of reconciliation.
Furthermore, although the final 15 minutes of the film are irredeemable, the gradual switch to more traditional horror fare starting around the hour mark is admirably handled by allowing character tensions within the group to guide our hand through the emotional shift. Severing its comedic ties by having arguments of increasing acidity manifest themselves, the heightened tension of conversation matches the heightened tension of the story, thankfully avoiding half-assed dark humor and confidently retiring the chuckles.
You won’t wanna know how he got those scars
These storytelling endeavors are assisted by the almost entirely stellar acting and character writing. Finally, for once in a horror film, the characters speak like real people, avoiding aggrandized one-liners and demonstrating some finesse in terms of line delivery and realistic conversation. While the character archetypes may not be particularly inventive, they all have distinct shortcomings and character flaws that contribute to the toxic group morale by the end of the film. The only notable misstep is an unfortunate romantic subplot between Greg and Sarah, which makes use of an entirely incongruous backstory involving Greg’s involvement as a photographer in Afghanistan.
But, alas, all good things must come to an end, and as mentioned a few times before, THEY’RE WATCHING’s climactic scene is unforgivable. The amateur hour special effects bonanza that closes the film is as ill-advised as they come. I suppose the filmmakers deserve some credit for refusing to pull a BLAIR WITCH (in fact, there is a visual gag towards the end referencing this particular film) and neglecting to show us anything distinct, but I’d much rather have a blurred shape and some scary sounds than what we’re subjected to in its stead. Once the witch reveals herself as just that and begins to wreak havoc on Pavlovka, cheaply animated flashes, lights, tentacles, and blood fly willy-nilly, contributing to a jaw-dropping lack of taste and poise that hadn’t been present up to that point. The whole thing feels like a segment of V/H/S: VIRAL, and I mean that in the least complimentary sense possible.
It’s a shame, too, because THEY’RE WATCHING could have been the unexpected surprise to end all unexpected surprises. Defying genre expectations through both specific elements of its story and overall tone and atmosphere, the film is comfortably familiar but consistently amusing until it jumps the shark. Found footage was never meant to highlight special effects, as its attempts at faux-vérité are meant to emulate grainy handheld cameras manned by “normal” people, and THEY’RE WATCHING’s bafflingly masturbatory inclusion of collegiate digital arts cuts the legs out from under it.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend