When a horror flick advertises the fact that its writer/director tandem (Jay Lender and Micah Wright, if you must know) has previously worked on Call Of Duty : Black Ops II and Spongebob Squarepants you know you might be in for something a little bit different, I suppose, and 2016’s They’re Watching (now streaming on Netflix and coming next month on Blu-ray and DVD), despite being yet another entry in the “found footage” genre, is certainly that. Lender and Wright both have a background in comic books, animation, and video games, and bring a definite comedic and OTT sensibility to the proceedings here, but be forewarned — if you’re looking for a traditional scare flick, this is anything but.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Despite some questionable tonal shifts and beyond-dodgy FX work, I found Lender and Wright’s low-budget opus to be reasonably entertaining throughout and a solid send-up of the entire wretched “Reality TV” industry, with just a dash of Cannibal Holocaust thrown in for good measure. A rundown of the particulars should clue you in on why I say that : American artist Becky Westlake (played by Brigid Brannagh) was featured some months back on a show called “House Hunters International” looking for a reasonably-priced home to share with her largely-absent soccer player boyfriend. They settled on a dilapidated “fixer-upper” (to say the least) just outside a remote village in Moldova (although the film was actually shot in Romania), and now the crew from the show are back to do their follow-up piece. The house, thanks to work both lined up and, in some cases, even performed by local real estate agent/handyman Vladimir Filat (Dimitri Diatchenko) looks positively gorgeous, and life in the Eastern European hinterlands seems to be nothing but smooth sailing for Becky. Until her television pals start fucking everything up.
Veteran camera operator Greg (David Alpay) and hot young intern Sarah (Mia Faith), who seem to be on the verge of having a May/December fling, decide it would be a good idea to add some “local color” to their video travelogue by filming the funeral of a recently-deceased child, but their attempts to do it on the sly are wrecked when their bitchy producer/host boss, Kate (Carrie Genzel) radios some instructions to them over a walkie-talkie that, if they had any sense, would have been shut off. The townsfolk are justifiably incensed, but the village police constable (Mircea Constantinescu) manages to step in just in time to prevent any bloodshed — for the time being. Still, constant earlier whining from the principals already mentioned as well as bad-attitude boom operator (Kris Lemche) has already laid the groundwork for a “revenge of the local yokels” come-uppance, and considering that these pampered American dilettantes can’t even seem to comprehend how they’re supposed to survive without a Starbucks nearby, it honestly couldn’t happen to a sweeter bunch.
On the plus side, when they do all finally get their due for being a bunch of smug, privileged assholes, it’s prolonged and bloody. On the minus side, the CGI effects are so lousy that they threaten to detract from the entire thing, despite the fact that it’s all essentially being played for laughs. You can’t have everything, I guess.
I can’t fault anyone in front of the camera — or behind it — for not trying, though. They’re Watching is definitely a film that gives its best from top to bottom and is only hindered by lack of resources rather than lack of will. Unfortunately, Lender and Wright haven’t quite figured out how to hit that “sweet spot” where they get their low-rent production values to work in their favor, and that results in their film having something of a SyFy Saturday night movie aesthetic to it, but the fact that the whole enterprise has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek more than makes up for most of its technical shortcomings. In short, if you’re prepared to have fun, this flick is more than happy to show you as good a time as it can with what it’s got.
I’d be lying through my teeth if I said there was anything particularly revelatory on offer here, it must be said, but solid performances, gallows humor, competent direction, strong (if broadly-drawn) characterization, a welcome absence of “shaky-cam” nonsense, and a downright gleefully sardonic tone make They’re Watching stand out from the rest of the “mockumentary” pack and even border, at times, on being almost memorable. I’m glad I took the time to check it out, and you’d be well-advised to do the same.