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A review of "They're Watching" (2016)

I knew I was going to dig They're Watching when they breezed right through the obligatory "here's our rationale for a found footage movie" sequence.

You can always tell when that moment comes up in a found footage movie because somebody will look at the camera and say, "Why are you recording this?"  Then whoever's behind the camera usually says something like, "Because people need to see it," or "I'm just trying out my new camera" or whatever the hell.  And then you get about 10-15 minutes of pointless garbage.  The filmmakers always seem to think that those 10-15 minutes are important to set the tone, somehow.  I think the implication is, "Hey, you like normal people, right?  Well, here's how normal these characters are.  They're recording banality, just like you would!  So... that's cool, right?"

It's one of my biggest pet peeves and the reason I usually hate found footage movies.  (See also: my not-quite-a-review of Mr. Jones.)  Fortunately, They're Watching has more polish.

Right off the bat, it sets up an organic reason for the found footage to exist: the protagonists are a television crew that's trying to film a House Hunters International-type reality show.  Perfect.  On top of that, the requisite "we're just dicking around with the equipment" sequences actually do the job they're meant to do - they build a compelling mood of isolation and paranoia.

The characters are a refreshing change of pace, too.  Typically found footage movies feature a half dozen too-hip-for-you twentysomethings who spend the first half trying to outdo each other with clever quips, and then spend the second half dying.  I can't say that They're Watching totally eschews that formula; at least one of the guys on the crew fits that archetype to a T.  But everybody else is much more interesting.

The primary protagonist is Sarah (Mia Marcon), a recent film school grad who's eager to prove herself on her first legit job in the entertainment business.  She's up against a plethora of obstacles.  Her boss, Kate (Carrie Genzel), is a total jerk who hates her, her coworkers, Greg (David Alpay) and Alex (Kris Lemche), are kind of aloof and casually sexist, and she got the job mainly because her uncle is Kate's producer.  So, basically, nobody takes her seriously.

Unfortunately, They're Watching doesn't do much to connect Sarah's personal conflict with the actual horror that is about to unfold, so I'd have to call that a story flaw.  Regardless, this is a horror movie with an actual, believable character at the helm, and that's a shockingly uncommon thing.

The cast is rounded out nicely with Becky (Brigid Brannagh), a well-to-do artist who has purchased and renovated a gnarly cottage out in the countryside of Moldova, and Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko), an eccentric and affable Moldovan real estate agent.  They're not terribly unique, but they aren't just a bunch of stupid teenagers in the forest, and I appreciate that.

They're Watching takes a bit of time getting to the actual horror of the story, which is a bit of an issue.  The first half is all about exposition and mood-building.  Ordinarily I'd call it tedious, except the movie makes up for that with a healthy dose of comedy.  It worked for me.  If it tried to be self-serious and gritty, I'd have been totally irritated.  Instead, I was willing to let it string me along.  Once it finally did get underway, I got all the grotesque horror and death I'd been waiting for - it escalates exactly as you want a horror movie should.

There's also an absolutely fantastic, skin-crawling reveal in the third act involving a mural that was pitch-perfect.  More than anything, I think that's what cemented it for me: I liked this movie.

There's just one major problem.  (Two, technically.)  The very first minute and the last minute are awful.

(Kind of a spoiler alert... but sorta not really?)

See, They're Watching actually opens with one of the most shocking moments of the movie, which is when Sarah is killed somewhat arbitrarily during the climactic escape sequence.  You see her die, then the movie does one of those "six months earlier" cuts, and then the movie builds back up to her death again.

The thing is, knowing that she dies ahead of time ruins the shock of that moment.  In context, it's a total gut punch.  It's the kind of thing where you go, "Holy shit, what?!  This movie isn't screwing around!"  Except, since the movie opens with just that brief moment where it happens, you spend most of the movie thinking, "Uh... so, wait, she's the one that died at the beginning, right?"

And most of the climax is pretty well done.  It gets a little bit overblown with effects, but not to a point that I got annoyed with it.  But once all the horror is done with, it's like the filmmakers just didn't know how to end.  So there's basically an extra thirty seconds that just deflate the mood.  It's so frustrating to know that this movie could be made dramatically better by just excising about forty seconds of runtime at either end of it.

Even so, I dug it.  And I'm absolutely floored that They're Watching has such middling-to-poor reviews - Metacritic, IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes all imply that it's subpar.  But then again, Grave Encounters had the same reception, and that's now one of my favorite ever horror movies.  I guess people still aren't ready for found footage movies to be, y'know, good.

My Rating: 4 / 5