Hello again found footage, my old friend.
I kid of course. We were never friends.
They’re Watching is the latest attempt at delivering found footage (FF hereafter) thrills, and while it makes some progress it unsurprisingly stalls where so many FF films have failed before.
Home Hunters Global is a globe-hopping reality show about people finding new homes in international locales – think House Hunters International on a budget – and their latest episode introduces viewers to Becky (Brigid Brannagh), an American artist hoping to settle in the Eastern European nation of Moldova. She’s found her new home in the small town of Pavlovka where the locals are twitchy and the Starbucks are non-existent, but when the show’s crew returns a few months later to follow-up on her progress they find more than renovations waiting for them.
The crew – cameraman Greg (David Alpay), sound guy Alex (Kris Lemche), new hire Sarah (Mia Faith), and producer Kate (Carrie Genzel) – are joined by their Moldovian guide, Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko), and settle into town for the few days they’ll need for the shoot. They’re filming during all of their downtime, obviously, and it quickly becomes clear that the townspeople don’t want them there. The feeling becomes mutual when the crew starts hearing talk of local legends, witches, and burnings at the stake – they hear some of this talk at the local pub, The Burning Stake – but by the time they realize the growing danger around them it’s far too late.
You know where it goes from there, in general if not the specifics, but writers/directors Micah Wright and Jay Lender manage one or two surprises by the time the credits roll. One thing that’s not a surprise? Sarah’s fate. She dies from an ax to the head. That’s not a spoiler by the way as we see it happen in the first couple of minutes thanks to the always – always – unwise decision to open the movie in medias res before jumping back to the beginning. Not that it would have been difficult to deduce on our own, but that brief look at the end also reveals that the townspeople have turned all murdery. It’s a pointless decision meant to grab viewers’ attention early, but anyone watching a FF movie knows the third act is when the bodies hit the floor.
The film’s strength shows its face shortly after that opening with the atypical (for FF) realization that these actors can actually act. All of the leads show a good handle on their characters and fluid interactions with each other and a script that walks a line between comedy and horror/thriller. The deference is heavily slanted towards the comedy, and while it doesn’t always earn a laugh it never really grates like FF characters typically do. Credit the cast and Wright/Lender’s time spent writing for snappy cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants and The Angry Beavers.
Of course as natural as they all are they’re hindered by the artificial format they’re stuck with here – cameras rolling when they wouldn’t be, pointed at things they wouldn’t be, reacting to things solely within the confines of the lens – and it detracts from the scares and the film far more than it adds. It adds nothing of course, but there you go. It all builds towards a chaotic finale – again, one already glimpsed in that inept opening choice – that delivers some fun, energetic, and gory beats even as the FF angle and inexpensive CG lessens the overall effect.
They’re Watching isn’t quite the successful horror/comedy it wants to be due to it never being scary and managing only scattered laughs, but it earns at least some points for taking a narrative path that hasn’t already been done to death in FF films. (I’m looking at you ghosts, aliens, and Bigfoot…) Most FF films are empty affairs without that hook, but there’s enough here that a FF-less version – a version where the story and characters have room to breathe – might have been something worth watching more than once.
The Upside: Some laughs; better acting/dialogue than expected; energetic finale
The Downside: Found footage problems; poor CG effects