Only a handful of found-footage horror movies in the past few years have connected with either audiences or critics, to the point where those few genuine successes have represented some degree of experimentation, like last year’s M. Night Shyamalan-orchestrated The Visit or the desktop-based Unfriended. But less inventive found-footage horror movies still get churned out on a regular basis, and rather than having the intended effect of increasing the naturalism and immediacy of the genre, they now mostly ensure that if a horror movie’s protagonists aren’t a family besieged by ghosts, they’re a camera crew rocking some degree of filmmaker’s arrogance. It makes sense that budding filmmakers would be drawn to these metatextual movies about the real-time making of horror movies. It also makes sense that plenty of people watching those movies could not care less about these characters or what happens to them.
They’re Watching at least attempts to incorporate filmmaking into its story more organically than some other found-footage pictures, though that also means it must chronicle the adventures of a bunch of callow camerapeople. After a quick introduction in the midst of typical climactic horror mayhem, the movie cuts straight into an episode of Home Hunters Global, an obvious (if not especially eagle-eyed) riff on the actual television program House Hunters International, complete with brightly colored graphics, bite-sized talking-head interviews, and an awkwardly inserted reference to the site of a witch burning for some clumsy portent. The show’s subject is Becky (Brigid Brannagh), who plans to renovate a rundown building in remote Pavlovka (treated as a generic Eastern European location, though it is the name of a real place in Russia).
Months later, Home Hunters host Kate (Carrie Genzel) returns to Pavlovka to film the post-renovation follow-up segment, with her camera-toting crew: Greg (David Alpay), the blandly sensitive one; Alex (Kris Lemche), the louche wiseass; and Sarah (Mia Faith), a recent film-school grad, along with their guide Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko). Greg, Alex, and Sarah are supposed to offer multiple opportunities for point-of-view footage by each carrying a different camera. They’re also supposed to be professionals, which makes their constant use of company equipment to capture their own lame wisecracks, gossip, and light inter-employee sniping not just contrived but positively foolhardy.
The endless shooting leads to a few meta touches, as when the more experienced Greg and Alex talk to Sarah about how to use handheld shots without making audience members sick. Cleverness this fleeting, though, is no substitute for interesting characters, and these three transparently function as ongoing excuses for the movie’s format. “We film everything from here on out,” one of them says an hour into a movie where they’ve been filming everything the entire time. With the movie distracted by these logistical concerns, its attempts at human interest, like Greg’s labored backstory involving a past wartime assignment, becomes superfluous bordering on exploitative. (His history is also introduced with a bizarre quip: “The only thing that man shot in Afghanistan was the news,” Alex says early on, apparently operating under the assumption that embedded journalism is, on some level, an act of shameful cowardice.)
With the characters dispatched by the screenplay long before their fates are officially sealed on screen, They’re Watching would have to deliver top-notch, or at least medium-notch, scares and suspense to really work. But for the first half of the movie, the horror elements sink into the background with tedious routine: crones standing and staring, villagers with axes, commotion caused at the mere mention of the word “witch.” It’s not scary, and not goofy enough to be funny. By the time co-writers and co-directors Jay Lender and Michah Wright deliver a serviceable if semi-predictable twist, the movie has lost any chance at an effective build-up.
They’re Watching’s climactic, protracted sprint through a haunted-house gauntlet has some more life to it, though with that life comes a litany of low-budget (if brightly colored) special effects. More desperate than the CG gore, though, is the movie’s mistaken impression that it works as satire. Is the film savaging cable TV? Ethically challenged filmmakers? Found-footage horror itself? If the intent was to finish off this subgenre by exposing the rote mechanics behind it, the mission is only halfway accomplished.