Film Review: They're Watching

A contemporary 'Blair Witch Project' knock-off that feels significantly more dated than the film it’s inspired by.
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When The Blair Witch Project arrived in theatres in the summer of 1999, few could have foreseen that a no-budget horror movie about three amateur filmmakers getting lost in the Maryland woods would prophesy a future where ordinary people willingly record their lives for private and/or public entertainment. The fake “found footage” concept popularized by directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez started to look awfully real the following summer when CBS premiered “Survivor” and kick-started the reality-TV revolution.

Four years shy of the two-decade mark, both found footage and reality television are starting to look awfully tired. And since the ostensibly new horror movie They’re Watching incorporates both into its central conceit—a reality-show crew documents their first-person close encounter of the spooky kind—it arrives in theatres feeling instantly dated. It’s a film that could easily have been made in the distant past of 2005 and was only just rediscovered at the back of the filmmakers’ closet.

Not coincidentally, 2005 was also the year that Eli Roth’s Ugly American torture-porn epic, Hostel, invited homegrown audiences to tour a version of Slovakia that was a haven for sadists and deviants. They’re Watching unfolds in another real-life Eastern European nation, Moldova, where the fictionalized local customs include witchcraft, unnerving church services, and menacing American reality-show crews with axes. It’s ethnic stereotyping on the level of Borat, without Sacha Baron Cohen’s intentionally provocative sense of humor.

They’re Watching doesn’t have a sense of humor at all, although it sure would like you to think otherwise. Directors Micah Wright and Jay Lender—who got their start in kids’ television before moving into videogames and comic books—call attention to the on-camera and behind-the-scenes conventions of reality TV as proof that they’ve studied the genre and can knowingly send it up. Thus, the show-within-the-movie is a jet-setting real-estate-themed series that doubles as a tongue-in-cheek takeoff on HGTV favorites like “House Hunters” and “Fixer Upper.” Even the film’s title can be read as an in-joke, with the “They” in They’re Watching referring as much to those of us who lap up “unscripted” entertainment as it does the myriad Moldovan villagers giving these American interlopers their best evil eye.

In the episode that’s taking shape before our eyes, American potter Becky (Brigid Brannagh) has relocated to a dilapidated cottage on the edge of a tiny town with her clearly unenthused lover Goran (Cristian Balint). Six months after her move-in date, a small crew consisting of brittle producer Kate (Carrie Genzel), thick-as-thieves cameramen Greg and Alex (David Alpay and Kris Lemche), and beautiful P.A. Sarah (Mia Faith) are dropping by hoping to find either a success story or a disaster—both of which would make for great television. What they find instead is something far stranger. The house is in great condition, and despite Goran not being around, Becky is calm... too calm. Couple that with the suspicious townspeople muttering darkly in their native tongue about witchcraft, and it’s blindingly clear to the audience—although not the frustratingly unobservant characters—that they should probably get the heck out of Dodge ASAP.

They don’t, of course, because bailing early would only leave Wright and Lender with a half-hour’s worth of material. (Which, not for nothing, happens to be the length of your average “House Hunters” episode.) So we’re obligated to wait for them to catch onto the paranormal goings-on, including the fairly obvious identity of the witch that everyone in this particular corner of Moldova is so freaked out about. In the most notable departure from the Blair Witch template, They’re Watching climaxes with an extended sequence of violent witch action in which the scariest thing is the cheapness of the special effects. (That’s another reason to appreciate the simple horror of Blair Witch’s abrupt final shot.) Reality television may have a reputation for being reprehensible, but when done well it’s also addictive, keeping viewers glued to the TV for marathon sessions of Kardashian misadventures or Amazing Races. They’re Watching, on the other hand, just inspires a desire to change the channel.

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