Roger Ebert used to repetitively quote (among other platitudes) a Howard Hawks phrasing that a good movie has “three great scenes and no bad ones.” The most frustrating thing about the straight to VOD horror cheapie They’re Watching is that it gets the first part of that formula so right & then disastrously loses control of what makes it at all special or distinct as a work of genre filmmaking in the second part. They’re Watching opens with an incredible hook & goes down punching in its glorious closing minutes of witchcraft-driven mayhem, but everything between those bookends is so mind-numbingly dull that it’s difficult to praise anything the film accomplishes. You cold sub out entire scenes, characters and plot points from this film with any number of digital-era found footage horror cheapies without losing or gaining anything particularly memorable in the process. This interchangeable, generic quality wouldn’t be such a big deal with a lot of films of this ilk, but They’re Watching tips its hand just enough to show that it could be a clever or imaginative horror flick with the right amount of effort. It just didn’t feel the need to bother.
They’re Watching teases the go-for-broke mayhem of its final moments in an opening scene of extreme violence, but that isn’t the hook that makes the film feel promising. It’s the framing device of a travel/real estate reality TV show that affords the it great potential. The bright, bubbly, inane visual & narrative palette of a daytime travel show is a fantastic contrast to the film’s ultraviolence and in its opening minutes of adopting the format I was tricked into thinking I was watching something special or worthwhile. Unfortunately, the movie immediately drops the gimmick to instead indulge in some abysmally dull, by-the-numbers found footage tedium. The film punishes American tourist archetypes as they try to find “first world inspiration” in the Eastern European country of Moldova, but instead of depicting their pain through an innocuous television show that takes classist delight in remote locations “where the Old World meets the New in surprising ways,” it instead spends almost all of its runtime functioning like the most forgettable Blair Witch Project knockoff imaginable. It doesn’t help the Blair Witch connection at all that the property the victims/television crew is profiling is a witch’s cabin in the woods. It also doesn’t help the film’s overall appeal that the only line of agreeable dialogue is when somebody shouts, “Alex, shut the fuck up!” to the most obnoxious tourist among them. Our American Idiots mock Moldovian poverty & superstition in a constant stream of offenses (to the point where they dare film undercover footage of a child’s funeral), so the audience does want to take delight in their inevitable comeuppance. However, forcing viewers to spend time with these sleazoids as they party & hangout between television tapings is cruel & unusual punishment for those following along at home.
There are some interesting images & ideas luring around in They’re Watching that suggest a better film that could’ve been produced in more capable hands. The film particularly makes great use of a prophetic painting & the common frog in its witchy mayhem, an all-out bloodbath of body-destroying telekinesis & general badassery. Too bad that bloodbath arrives too late in the game to save the film from its overall tedium. Instead of having three great scenes & no bad ones, They’re Watching has one great concluding scene, one go-nowhere opening gimmick, and a whole heap of grey mush in-between. I don’t know what that ingredient list is a recipe for, besides maybe a less-than-compelling disappointment. I’d almost rather it didn’t have one great scene at all, so that I wouldn’t have known that it was capable of more than it bothered delivering.