Hello, and welcome to Netflix Dumpster Dive. This month, we’re back with another horror film, a found footage flick called They’re Watching.
They’re Watching caught my eye because it came out last year (2016), and is a found footage movie with a mythos surrounding witches. At this point, I’m sure most people know about the movie that popularized found footage, The Blair Witch Project. And coincidentally, last year The Blair Witch Project received a true sequel, Blair Witch, one that was a return to form and a generally great film, almost as good as its predecessor. Naturally, given the close release time of Blair Witch and They’re Watching, I assumed in reading the description on Netflix and in seeing the poor score (barely over 1 star) it received that They’re Watching was a ripoff intended to bank on the release of Blair Witch to attract viewership. I was fully prepared to go into this review harping on how they stole every beat straight from the Blair Witch movies, and the laziness I expected, et cetera, but I am glad to say that I won’t have to do that, because They’re Watching, while still clearly drawing inspiration from the other films, isn’t nearly as much of a ripoff as I originally anticipated. Now, does that mean the movie is great? Well… it wasn’t horrible.
They’re Watching is a film in which an American/Canadian film crew is shooting a documentary of sorts and winds up in an unfamiliar, rural town, whose history is closely related to a witch’s evil doings. Witch-related events cause our heroes to be lost in the woods with no way back to civilization.
Now, that sure sounds like The Blair Witch Project. However, They’re Watching differs a lot from that film in its story structure and setting, while still employing the world building and character interaction strengths that The Blair Witch Project did, albeit in a different style. The witch herself is only vaguely hinted at until the climax of the film, and for the characters, she is an afterthought almost entirely, because there are real, physical threats afoot (think Resident Evil 4 type stuff). Conflict is engaged in realistic manners as opposed to manufactured drama. Each character has an M.O. and a history, and the way they interact is evident of that. Which brings me to my next point.
They’re Watching does something not a lot of horror movies do: it does characters well. Every character is believable and entertaining. Even the characters you don’t really like, you don’t like them because you’re supposed to not like them, not because they’re poorly written. And, even moreso, it does its female characters justice. Real, emoting female characters, that are more than just walking plot devices. That’s incredible because so many horror movies, especially with male protagonists, will pay little to no attention to the structure of the female characters, and use them either for cheap nudity or sex scenes, only to be killed off because, hey, female characters should be poor decision makers 100% of the time, right?
When I say the characters are relatable and believable, I know it’s important to add that as far as the found footage part of the movie goes, these are very experienced characters. That does take away from the immersion in several instances, especially when certain shots are just too good to be filmed on a camcorder held at someone’s chest, 2K filming or not. That was my main qualm with the found footage aspects of They’re Watching. In found footage, the more authentic your shots are, the less believable they are, if that makes sense. While I do have this problem, however, I will add that the characters explain why they are always filming outside of just “We’re filming a TV show and all this stuff starts happening.” In fact, aside from the introduction to the episode of the TV show being filmed, very little of the movie consists of shots that were interrupted by witchy business.
In addition, in spite of the characters’ experience in filmmaking, the movie does throw them into an environment they are not comfortable with. Where in The Blair Witch Project the characters were panicked and in crisis due to their young ages and being lost in the woods with a functionless map, They’re Watching cuts its characters out of their comfort zone by putting them in the midst of a culture they are not even remotely familiar with, with a somewhat shady guide as their only means of interacting with the locals. Tension is built through the odd, eccentric actions of the townspeople, and through the odd occurrences, which are far and few between, and have an ambiguous nature as to whether they are just odd or truly paranormal.
I do have a couple other major grievances with They’re Watching as well. First off, it does this thing I’ve seen a number of movies, especially underknown horror movies, do. It spoils a significant scene from the climax at the very beginning. At first the way it’s framed, I thought it would be similar to the beginning of Always Watching (a God awful Slenderman/“Marble Hornets” movie), where a group of unrelated characters are running from the primary antagonist and filming for some reason. This is not that, and while it sets up an expectation for the rest of the movie that it then somewhat cleverly subverts, it is just irritating. It makes it harder to get attached to the character who dies in this scene when you see them appear later. What We Become, the first movie I reviewed for Netflix Dumpster Dive, did this as well, but the nature of the scene in that film was so ambiguous that all it told you was that the movie was going to be dark. No characters were off’d on screen, it just set the tone, and when the movie reached its opening scene, the payoff for the scene was entirely different that the expectation.
One small grievance I had, before we get to the other big one, is that a character trait teased throughout the film is revealed toward the end, and it is a traumatic, soul crushing one. This would be fine, it’s splendid payoff to the build up. However, it is followed up almost immediately by the characters having sex. While a romance was brewing between them, the aspect of this character’s past they revealed is so gruesome that I find it incredibly immersion-breaking for sex to follow it up.
My other big grievance is a two-parter. Humor is used exceptionally throughout They’re Watching in order to build empathy with the protagonists. It’s all the right amount of funny and endeared the main characters to me just as it should have. Then, when the tension begins to build, humor starts to become less and less, until it is entirely absent. The movie is dark and tense, the moments leading to climax had me on the edge of my seat, and then the last twenty minutes come, and it all goes to hell. Comedic dialogue returns at the worst of times (including the very last line), and flashy, fake-looking special effects pollute the screen. Something about the last twenty minutes makes me believe that maybe, just maybe, the filmmakers were trying to be experimental and innovative with the found footage medium, and instead of incorporating their established tension and tone, went for a flashy, over-the-top sequence, that is practically a montage. I will give them that it appears to be one continuous shot, which adds realism and coolness to the sequence, but at the same time, it dismantles the nature of the film up to that point. This wasn’t a campy action movie, it was a horror thriller, and the movie suffered by turning on a dime like that. Maybe a big payoff ending is a lot to expect considering the writers of this wrote a Call of Duty game and on Spongebob, but they did write one of the best Call of Duty narratives and Spongebob has had many well formed plotlines, so I don’t think that’s the case.
Overall, would I recommend this movie? Despite my grievances and the movie’s low score, I actually would. I especially recommend it if you like The Blair Witch movies. While They’re Watching is definitely no where near as good as either of the other movies, it is quite good up to those last twenty minutes, and if you can suspend your expectations, even those can be fun. If you’re more of a Blair Witch purist, you may not want to watch this, because where it changes the dynamic, it changes hard, and is no longer anything like The Blair Witch movies. If you’re looking for a good, suspenseful ride, with a dramatic, gory conclusion, or even just a decent horror movie to waste some time or end an evening, They’re Watching is for you.
Personal Rating: 6.5/10 (Rounded to 3 Stars on Netflix)
Thank you for reading! That concludes our Netflix Dumpster Dive for this month! This one was definitely more true to the dumpster dive imagery, since I was fully expecting They’re Watching to be a crappy Blair Witch ripoff, but I was pleasantly surprised, and found good in the trash I originally thought I was jumping into.
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©2017 Vincent C. Russo. All Rights Reserved.
I claim no rights to any film mentioned here. All rights to these films and the images used go to their respective owners. This post is intended for review only, and constitutes fair use.