Once pioneered by but a few entries (namely The Blair Witch Project, and much further back, titles like Cannibal Holocaust), the found-footage niche has gradually become oversaturated with countless homogeneous takes in recent years; very few resonating as memorable and/or exciting. You can probably thank 2007’s Paranormal Activity and its enormous success for fueling this inundation.
Promotionally proficient with eye-catching posters tagged with the avowedly interesting combo of “from the writers of Call Of Duty: Black Ops II and SpongeBob SquarePants,” They’re Watching managed to build up a little steam in the hype train, but unfortunately, the end result of this “horror-comedy” is a faceless flick in which either half of that hyphenated genre descriptor could be considered a stretch. Plummeting into the bottomless pit of found-footage flops like Skinwalker Ranch and Area 51, They’re Watching, if remembered at all, will only be so as an ironic title or maybe for its abruptly wild, cheap-CGI-laden finale.
To its credit, unlike many features in the genre, They’re Watching has a clever way of warranting the “we film everything” direction, setting up its format as an episode of American cable show Home Hunters Global, which HGTV fans will immediately recognize as a parody of House Hunters International, all the way down to its theme song and the familiarity in the voice of its host. For this particular episode, the subject is Becky Westlake, an artist from Los Angeles who relocates to Moldova in Eastern Europe with a desire to slow down and settle with her professional soccer player boyfriend. The setup is initially amusing; unfortunately, though, it’s not long before you’re introduced to the characters you’ll follow around aimlessly for the next 90 minutes.
Home Hunters Global‘s crew consists of its forever-scowling, foul-mouthed boss/host of the show, Kate (Carrie Genzel), the obnoxiously smart-ass cameraman, Alex (Kris Lemche), the seemingly sensitive and troubled Greg (David Alpay), and the newbie—a producer’s niece and recent film school graduate, Sarah (Mia Faith). The problem with these characters, which has nothing to do with acting, is that none of them are interesting enough to add any value to a movie already devoid of any truly redeeming qualities. With nothing to justify concern, each character’s respective fate is unaffecting. Luckily, the crew’s charismatic guide and translator, Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko), who Alex nicknames “Disco Dracula,” is at least likable, in a charmingly chintzy sort of way. It’s his quips and carefree attitude that offer a faint glimmer in an otherwise drab environment.
With the goal of shooting a followup interview with Becky about the renovations she’s made on her Moldovan abode (which they’re expecting little of based on the dilapidated condition it was in when Becky first purchased it), the crew heads back to the antiquated town. Here, they intrude on the streets, at pubs and accidentally at a private funeral where their presence quickly sets off those in attendance. Because of this, there’s a gradually rising tension between the crew and the town’s traditional local folk (many of whom often wield axes, seemingly for no reason other than to intimidate). When combined with the inherent creepiness that found footage often creates in a first-person POV, there are irrefutably unsettling moments in the film. Those moments, though, are fleeting and few and far between as the pacing lacks consistency before the film erupts into a CGI-filled chaos of bodies being thrown, disintegrated and ravaged in a final 10 minutes that are absurd, disorienting and uncharacteristic based on the 80 minutes that precede them.
Besides the fact that They’re Watching offers little in the way of comedy or horror for most of its runtime, it also can’t commit to the conventions of found footage—its “protocol,” so to speak. If you add a score or soundtrack to a found-footage film, regardless of how effective and well-crafted it might be, you’re nullifying your own work due to the precepts of the genre. This, paired with things like inconsistent editing and extraneous character narratives that never pay off, results in a messy attempt that likely won’t find itself on any positive top 10 lists come the end of the year.