Tuesday, September 20, 2016

THEY'RE WATCHING (2016) [Joe's Review]

When a House Hunters-esque film crew returns to the scene of a Moldovan restoration project, they’re bewitched by the progress that’s been made!

They’re Watching is…not terrible. It’s not scary, but it doesn’t make you suspect that the screenwriter was a sociopath (The Chosen), and it isn’t unintentionally racist (The Veil). It’s not awful. It’s not incredibly stupid.

It’s…it’s been so long since I said something nice about a movie. But it’s not enough to say bad things about They’re Watching and then just put “Not” in front of them. Or even after them!

They’re Watching is one of the best bad horror movies we’ve seen. It is a fine date night choice especially if your significant other doesn’t love scary movies the way you do, mainly due to its Joss Whedon-esque banter, and over-the-top finish that is more campy-fun than scary.

The thing that keeps They’re Watching from being a really good movie is the fact that the theme of 'watching' exists entirely in service of a plot twist, rather than an artistic insight. It’s like if you made a movie about the idea of “dogs”, and you featured hot dogs, Snoop Dogg, and a terrier. Yeah, they’re all dogs, and your movie can be said to have the theme of ‘dogs’, but you haven’t come to any greater understanding of dogs by questioning what hot dogs mean in the context of terriers. Instead, Snoop Dogg would have to get into his car by coaxing a terrier to hit the unlock button, by offering it a hot dog.

In a similar fashion, They’re Watching introduces “watching” in the title, in the context (reality show), in the initial chills (the villagers are watching them), in a subplot about what the cameraman saw in Afghanistan, and in the ultimate plot of the villain. The only thing missing is meaning!

So, let’s unpack some of these thematic hot dogs and try to fit them to buns (which, as you know, will never happen).

The Title

In my opinion, the title is the cleverest part because you reflect on it differently once you’ve seen the film. As the credits roll, it occurs to you wonder who “they” are, and you realize it’s you! You thought “they” were the villagers, but then that got turned on its head and ripped in half by magic! Or maybe that was actually a villager…

I also think the title represents the kind of hopeful double-entendre that always looks really ironic in hindsight. It’s like naming your movie “Four Stars” or “Attack of the Totally Unexpected Academy Award!” Oscar’s not walking through this door, and the final dramatic irony of They’re Watching is that virtually no one has seen it.

The Context

The basis for the found-footage is that the characters are producing a show styled after House Hunters international and one of the cameramen is like a method cameraman, so even when he’s not filming the show, he’s always filming. So he’s filming things for people to not watch, and we’re watching it. Which is an interesting metaphor for almost all of the films we review on this blog.

The Villagers

In the film’s very first scene, you see the villagers kill the cute, blonde intern, so you know they’re going to flip out and kill people. You assume they must be bad and for the first third of the film, they can be seen in the background staring ominously at the film crew. They’re watching! Like, literally. But, then the crew buys the villagers vodka, and they have a really fun looking party, and then the villagers aren’t really watching them anymore. So, they were watching, and now they’re watching…not.

The Children’s Funeral

The reason the villagers are especially pissed at the film crew is because the film crew inexplicably crashes a funeral for three children killed by the witch, and then makes a scene and gets into a fight with the mourners. In this case, “They” is the film crew, and they’re watching a funeral they shouldn’t be. And instead of exiting discretely, they make a ton of noise because they didn’t mute their cell phones. And then instead of HELLA apologizing, they get into a fight about it.

The Cameraman’s Story

In addition to filming every single interaction like an asshole, the cameraman also has a story about things he saw in Afghanistan that he doesn’t want to share.


It comes out that the cameraman went to an all-girls school in Afghanistan to chronicle how awesome it was. Some Taliban guys showed up, and where they would have probably just chilled and played some dominos, they felt like they had to ham it up for the camera, so they killed a bunch of the girls, and made the cameraman film it. So, it’s like totally the cameraman’s fault for filming the atrocity…because if he hadn’t been filming it never would have happened. Nooooo, he’s complicit in the crimes of his narrative! He's so tortured that he's the one who somehow crashes the children's funeral and gets into a fight for filming it.

Right after he finally tells the blonde intern his story, they do each other and unintentionally make a sex tape (because the camera is running), but you don’t actually see it because the scene cuts to them waking up. So, if we weren’t watching would they not have done it? But we didn’t see it, so did they do it? I’m confused.

The Evil Plot Twist

So, this is going to spoil everything. In fact, I actually recommend watching They’re Watching before you read on, because this is the only movie we’ve reviewed to this point where having the plot spoiled would actually be a bad thing. Most of the time it’s like we’re reviewing sandwiches and telling you “The secret ingredient in this sandwich is poop, so don’t eat it.” But this one is actually not a poop sandwich.

Last chance…

It turns out that the woman who bought the fixer upper really is the witch the villagers think she is. And this whole movie has been a part of her plan to kill everyone while being filmed doing it. She even draws a mural on her wall that shows how they’re going to show up and film her killing everyone.

Then, she kills everyone, but leaves one of the cameramen alive so that he can tell everyone about it, and more importantly, show them. Because her plan is for them to see it! And that them is you! But what happens when you see it? I have no idea. Apparently you become aware that, in addition to terrible poverty, Moldova is also home to an ultraviolent witch who wants to be famous.

The main crux of the “watching” idea is how it works in service of you thinking that the watchers are the villagers. So in that regard, the theme mostly works in service of the plot twist. You go from thinking they’re watching, to realizing that you’re watching, and the whole plan has been for you to watch all along.

But why? And who cares? This is where the Afghanistan story comes in, and any hope of meaning falls apart. Because using the story of actual atrocities committed by Taliban against children in Afghanistan as an analogy for a dimwitted cameraman filming a witch who cartoonishly butchers eastern European stereotypes is not meaningful. It is the opposite of meaningful. It uses real tragedy to imbue something that isn’t real and never happens with significance.

And that’s why They’re Watching is not bad, but also not good. 

Joe’s Questions for Paul

1.  Why didn't the Witch just buy a camera?

PH:  I'm not sure witches are totally up on their new technology.  She probably went to Target looking for an enchanted mirror and gave up. 

2.  When did you figure out that she was a witch?

PH:  Somewhere between "where's my boyfriend?  oh, he's out of town" and "come down to my cellar, there's something I REALLY want to show you."

3.  Why frogs?

PH:  Because being attacked and eaten by a horde of tiny frogs makes for good cinema.  It's a toad-al hop-ortunity, and not even a tad-political.  Heh.

4.  Wouldn't people hate the "I'm always filming" camera man?

PH:  Yes, yes they would.

5.  How did the villagers defeat the witch in her previous lives?  She seems REALLY strong.

PH:   According to the film, they burned her at the stake.  In fact, the stake is still in her yard, which I would think would be one of the first things to take out when renovating a new house.  I know it's historical and all, but a nice citrus tree is far less gruesome and also: fruit for cocktails!

6.  What is Doina? 

PH:  Is it a viral marketing campaign for the movie or is it a real candy bar?  I don't know.  My guess?  It's a Slavic word for "admirable commitment to a joke that no one gets."

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