They’re Watching (Jay Lender, Micah Wright) popped up in my Netflix feed, tagged with a rating that was surprisingly more than 2 stars. I’m always a sucker for found footage films, so I hit play. This is a new-ish movie, so I’m going to avoid as many spoilers as possible, and if I do put any, I’ll throw them under a cut.
let’s get witchy
I don’t want to say I had high hopes for this movie, because I didn’t. I had never heard of it until I clicked play, but halfway into They’re Watching, I had high hopes.
I say halfway in, because not much happens until the last 30 minutes or so. By this point they’ve established a decent rapport between the characters, the set up for “the witch” is in place, and all they have to do is build some tension. This film starts out as a serious, indie-feeling slow-burn movie, and had they really stuck to this I think They’re Watching would have been far more successful.
And the thing is, the movie isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just…confused. It’s a very predictable movie that moves forward pretty logically, which I don’t mind! Not everything has to reinvent the wheel: this had a lot of potential to be a satisfying and scary movie. But it isn’t.
You think it’s going to be, but then it just isn’t.
They’re Watching doesn’t really know what type of movie it’s trying to be, and decides to reinvent itself 2/3rds of the way through the action, which is a shit idea. This movie starts out as a “slow burn” that had the potential to really dig in, but instead takes a sharp right hand turn down Weird Lane with no explanation.
Here’s a brief overview of the movie: the camera crew for an international house-hunting TV show go back to the small, deeply religious Moldavian town of Pavlovka to follow up on an earlier guest’s house renovations. Turns out the locals have a deep seated belief in witches, and their new American friend who lives out in the woods falls directly into the categories that would label her a spook. The TV crew, of course, gets caught up in the drama, and shit goes down.
Now, before I tear into They’re Watching, there are a couple of good things about this film that are worth mentioning. Like I said, it isn’t a bad film, and there are some aspects that I think deserve credit.
-The rapport between the characters, particularly Alex (Chris Lemche) and Greg (David Alpay) is really natural, and they have some humorous moments in the film that are enjoyable. The dialogue never really felt forced, which is nice for a film in this vein.
-The premise of why the crew was in Moldova was rather unique (a house hunting show), as usually a film crew in Eastern Europe is there to “make a documentary” or something serious and bland. It’s not a major plot point, but I thought it was a nice detail nonetheless.
-The directors managed to blend past and present sequences in a found footage film rather well, without breaking continuity. They make a point to mention how the cameras are always on, so a lot of the footage makes sense.
….and that’s about it. The movie is, generally speaking, well made. There are no egregious plot holes, most things flow logically, and the production value seems decently high. It could have been a nice, average slow-burn movie where tension gradually builds up and then explodes catastrophically in the last 30 minutes. Which it kind of does- the catastrophic part, anyway.
So, a few smaller issues I had with the film before we get to the big stuff:
-Can we please retire the “religious non-English-speaking backwards foreign villagers are the enemy,” trope? And the drinking montages? Because they’re old and tired and would like to go to bed, please.
-This is really nitpicky, but they used non-diegetic music in a found-footage film, which kinda sucked some of the fun out of it for me. Music is generally great, because it gives emotional cues that often let the audience know what’s coming. This can be really effective (read: Jaws) but in found footage films, I often find that having no cues makes it scarier. Watching an empty screen for a while, expecting something to happen, and having no clues as to whether it will or not is incredibly tense. Building fear with just the suggestion that something may happen is brilliant. As I said, this is very nitpicky and ultimately not this film’s biggest issue.
Grab your shovels folks, because we’re about to dig in.
They’re Watching had a lot of potential, but ultimately fails to capitalize on the tension the film slowly accumulates. The directors buildt a little tension here and there, but ultimately undercut it with strange, unrelated sequences, such as a random Moldovian jam sesh, or a weird, shoe-horned in sex scene. If you’re going to cut the tension, do it like James Wan does: give the audience a break, but make it brief. As such, the tension doesn’t truly build. Something off will happen here or there, but it’s all sort of sidelined by long, unrelated moments.
TW- Mentions of PTSD-
Another thing: the romance between Sarah (Mia Faith), the “new kid” and Greg is just weird and serves no purpose. Also, Greg’s PTSD plot was handled very poorly. I have a lot of feelings on depictions of mental illness in film, and They’re Watching does not get high praise from me on this front.
Anyway, off my soapbox.
In short, the tension stutters, and the characterization sputters. But I would have vaguely forgiven those things had the movie delivered in the final act. And boy does it deliver something: just not what I thought I ordered.
Here’s the spoiler-free version about the nitty-gritty of the last 30 minutes that I’m about to discuss: My biggest complaint with this movie is the major tonal shift in the last section of the film. The opening 2/3rds of the movie or so have the audience set up for a tense slow-burn. A few weird things happen, slowly accumulating and snowballing. When they could have hit a pretty decent finale, the directors take They’re Watching down a weird, pseudo-comical road. It does not match at all with the atmosphere they built earlier, and turns the movie into a strange hybrid. I am all for experimentation and pulling the rug out from under viewers; but it has to be done well. This tonal shift has no precedent, no “earlier hints at”, and feels incredibly disjointed with the rest of the film. Had the directors stuck to one mood, I really think this movie could have been a really good time. But all I got from this movie was a weird taste in my mouth. I felt almost cheated, like I had bought a coffee, and halfway into drinking it realized it was actually just really bitter tea. The climax that would have brought this whole movie together was destroyed. And not even in a cool, sexy way; the destruction of the climax was fucking anticlimactic. Anyway, here’s the spoiler-y bit if you’re into that:
What the fuck?
What the fuck? You spend 60 minutes of this film setting the scene for a gory, intense climax and you give us this??? Cheesy CGI effects straight out of a SyFy movie???? Who let you do that??? Who, when you sat down and pitched this film, heard you say- “We’re gonna make this dark, tense movie about a woman who may or may not be a witch- and get this, she totally is- and instead of making it dark and primal like the first half suggested, BAM! LIGHTNING HANDS, MOTHERFUCKER!”- and said YES???
I have no issue with SyFy shitty effects! I love them! But they came out of left field and totally ruined the bits of tension you had been building up for literally the first 75 minutes of the fucking film! You had a great reveal where Becky gets all creepy and shit is very clearly about to go down and you give her lightning hands?? You can’t whip that shit out with like 15 minutes left! You need to ease that shit in! You can’t just vaporize poor Greg with no explanation or recourse! IT’S SHITTY!!!
To be honest, if the whole movie had been styled this way, I probably would have really enjoyed it. I love cheesy, shitty things! But this felt so very out of place. Instead of sticking the landing, They’re Watching fell off the balance beam and split their leotard up the crotch on national television. The ending was disappointing and strange, and I honestly felt like I had wasted my time.
Once I found out that the two directors were involved in Call of Duty: Black Ops and Spongebob, this movie made a lot more sense. They pelvic-thrusted all over the place, but they forgot to land on their right foot.
In summary: They’re Watching had a lot of potential to be a fun “night-in” sort of movie. It wasn’t going to be revolutionary, but it could have been fun. Instead, it’s plagued with weird subplots and sequences, and a last-minute major tonal shift that turns what could have been a tense thriller into a let-down. It isn’t a bad movie, and some people might actually really enjoy the last act. I don’t regret watching it, per say, and I do think this movie should get some credit for what it did well. I just don’t foresee myself watching this again, or recommending it without a word of caution.
They’re Watching coulda’ been a contender. But instead, it busted out of its ring and tried to fight in someone else’s; and that, my friends, is poor form.
If you are confused by the pelvic thrust/right foot reference:
Featured Image source: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3096858/mediaviewer/rm3413450240