Editor’s Note: They’re Watching was released on home video and in limited theatrical release on March 25, 2016.
Likely one of the found-footage genre’s most inventive gimmicks is that of the documentary style. It not only provides an instant explanation for the filming of the footage we’re watching, but grounds it in a strong sense of realism. This was put to horrifying effect in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, John Erick Dowdle’s controversial horror debut, and to darkly funny effect in Derek Lee and Cliff Prowse’s Afflicted, a Canadian vampire film from 2014. In Poughkeepsie, we see tapes filmed by a killer spread throughout a fictional late-night crime special, and in Afflicted, the travel vlogs of two friends slowly turn grim when one of them is bitten by a vampire. Perspectives like these liven up the genre immensely, so every time a new and exciting one surfaces, it should be given attention.
Not only is tension palpable, the cast excels with their characters put under pressure, making for some engaging and funny interactions.
That’s what They’re Watching, the feature debut of Jay Lender and Micah Wright, brings to the table. It’s about the crew of an American home-improvement reality show visiting an Eastern European village, where they aim to film an episode. But much to the dismay of this young, vaguely xenophobic crew, the locals there are the ominously staring, creepy type. Things get worse when those locals gather in the trees around the house the crew’s filming in, and tensions soon quickly escalate. What ensues is weird in its own likable way, but very strangely plotted, though its tangential finale benefits from such long buildup. We begin with a great, unapologetic opening that shows footage already filmed for the reality show, with cheesy music and all. It’s fun, new, and intriguing. But, after that’s over, we’re just watching the camera crew, a group of 20-somethings, playing with their equipment and complaining. It’s not really much different from the first acts of other found-footage films, where characters will sit around, explicitly stating why they’re filming. Intrigue eventually gives way to a lack thereof, though the leads are fun enough to watch.
The second act remains in that middle ground where there’s not much new going on, but interesting ideas present themselves at random. For one, there’s a scene with the character holding the camera being sent into the nearby woods to shoot B-roll, leading her to discover something worrisome. It’s a clever concept that smoothly bridges a scene of dialogue to a scene of suspense. Both acts, this one and the first, aren’t necessarily bad at all, they’re just lacking the promise put on display during the opening. The third act, however, is where everything improves. Not only is tension palpable, the cast excels with their characters put under pressure, making for some engaging and funny interactions. Not to mention, there’s a satirical undercurrent running throughout that places, under its spotlight, the tendency of ignorant Americans to be inherently afraid of (yet irritated by) foreigners and their traditions. Just look at the moment where, after being boarded inside the house, one crew member shouts out of a window, “Can somebody please explain that we’re Americans???”
Intrigue eventually gives way to a lack thereof, though the leads are fun enough to watch.
Finally, in the last 15 minutes, everything turns to complete chaos in the best way. There’s endearingly cheesy CGI effects all over the screen, and the character holding the camera is caught in the middle of a warzone, which feels gargantuan in scale simply because of that camera’s perspective. This is where found-footage flourishes, not only accompanied by exciting concepts, but placed in exciting settings. Here, it’s a forest lit aflame with screaming locals running around, bearing weapons. It’s a finale that makes the film’s disappointing first two thirds worth watching, and somehow a bit more enjoyable in retrospect. They’re Watching may not nail everything it goes for, but when it really tries, it really succeeds.
With fun performances and a found-footage documentary style, They're Watching lags for the first two acts but almost makes up for it with a stellar finale.