Friday, September 16, 2016

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

So, the new rebooted Blair Witch comes out this week.  And guess which found footage horror movie we’re going to review? . . . That’s right!  They’re Watching!  It’s the found-footage/reality-TV horror comedy mash-up that no one but us is talking about!  And I’m here to say, IT’S NOT HALF BAD.

They’re Watching begins with a spot-on parody of that opiate for the middle-class homeowner, the bountiful cornucopia of real estate reality shows that cable television has added to our lives.  This episode of “Home Hunters Global” opens with in Moldova, and over the jazzy, harmless synth pop and peppy voiceover, we see dreary grey-skied shots of a sad cement city, complete with a wandering potbellied drunk stumbling through the frame.  Undeterred, the buyer, an artsy American woman, and her inappropriate-sex-joke European boyfriend consider and then buy a charming wreck of a house in rural Moldova.  From cheerfully bland voice-over, we discover that Becky is looking to escape from the “hectic Los Angeles crafts scene.”  If you’ve watched HGTV, you know that everyone is trying to escape a “hectic” something.  But the hectic crafts scene?  It’s right at that edge of thoughtless banality, capturing perfectly the deadened spirit of reality-tv voice-over writing.
Once the prefatory parody is over, They’re Watching turns to found-footage, specifically the footage of the TV crew sent back to Moldova to record the follow-up on Becky's renovations.  The snarky American twenty-somethings in the crew banter constantly, but their jokes are less witty and more mildly offensive; like they are competing for the Ryan-Lochte-trophy-for-outstanding-achievement-in-the-fields-of-entitlement.  They manage to piss off everyone in the small Moldovan town and then begin to suspect that the townspeople, who start to follow them while carrying axes, might not want them there.  Turns out, the charming town has a charming history of burning witches.  And Becky, mysteriously sans boyfriend, keeps really REALLY wanting to show them the renovations she’s done in the cellar. 

They’re Watching builds slowly, maybe too slowly.  There are two nearly identical drinking scenes at the same Moldovan tavern.  The early humor stales, as the movie flatly palms off eastern European stereotypes in a sometimes cringe-inducing way.  And, most worrisome for the target audience, the body count sits at zero for the first two-thirds of the film.  A flashforward in the first seconds of They’re Watching to one of the major characters getting an axe to the head at the end of the film signals that gory action will happen (though an hour and fifteen minutes later) seems like a last minute edit to punch up the adrenaline for the notoriously distracted millennials that this film would seem to target.
This side of meat is the most gory thing in the first half of the movie.
But the other effect of this flashfoward is that we know that one of the major characters is going to die.  Should I just tell you?  It’s the girl, Sarah.  So this actually affects the whole tenor of the film, since we know that the girl who, because of her youth, inexperience, and attractiveness, would in all other cases be the final girl, can’t be!  It's just more to the good though, since, as the film goes along, Sarah seems to be in the lead for that Ryan Lochte trophy.  If I didn’t know that she was going to die a horribly gory death, I would think that the movie wanted me to like her and was failing. 
But about halfway through the film, I realized that this film isn’t really for millennials, but for Gen-Xers.  And then everything opened up, like a moody Gen-X flower in the black hole sun.  The youth in the film may be irritating and oblivious, but isn’t that what Gen-Xers generally think about millennials anyway?  The two most charismatic characters—a boisterous Moldovan real estate agent and Becky, played with screen-stealing effect by Dimitri Diatchenko and Brigid Brannah respectively—are both firmly in their late 30s/early 40s.  And to get the whole setup and many of the jokes, you have to watch HGTV.  What person under the age of thirty watches HGTV?  They’re Watching is a horror movie for those who spend equal amounts of their social time complaining about entitled millennials and fantasizing about kitchen remodels. 

Dimitri Diatchenko, more charismatic than a gaggle of young Americans
Brigid Brannah, mugging is winning!
If you watch the film with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, you start to realize that there are the obvious ugly-American jokes, which aren't all that funny, and then a whole substrate of meta-jokes, which areJust one example, while trying to pull ominous images for this review, I went to the scene where the villagers just stand and watch the characters in a silent line.  It looks like this:

You get the feel, right?  It's a bunch of scary villagers with farm tools being menacing.  But then something caught my eye.  Look at it in real time, and check out the middle dude.

It doesn't call attention to itself, and I probably wouldn't have even noticed if I hadn't been trying to pull a screenshot, but the biggest guy in the frame is hiding behind the smallest tree.  And he's ducking around furtively, trying to see through the sparse leaves as if we can't see him.  It's like when my cat hides under the bed with his tail sticking out.  It's a tiny tiny detail, but it adds just enough silliness to keep the film parodic without losing at all the horror vibe--it's more Scream than Scary Movie.

Yet, for all the nuanced pokes at the genre, They’re Watching does have a couple actually unsettling scenes.  Perhaps the best is the mural in the cellar that Becky finally unveils at the end.  I don’t want to give it away, but let’s just say that getting away from the hectic L.A. crafts scene has really given Becky the space to concentrate on her use of disembodied eyes and ears.

Are there misses along the way?  Oh absolutely.  Perhaps the worst is the inclusion of a tortured night-vision Sophie’s-choice confession of one character about his experience in Afghanistan.  Tonally, it’s just weird and plotwise it’s basically pointless.  It doesn’t really deepen the character much either, since his guilt-wracked soul is immediately consoled by some night-vision sexy time with the not-final girl.  It’s like a non-load-bearing column in the middle of your open-concept living room.  What’s it doing there?  Go ahead and take it out! 
Shedding some of this filler might have helped the film get to the good stuff quicker, by which I mean the nutso hyper-violence of the final fifteen minutes.  According to IMDB, the creators of They’re Watching cut their teeth writing comics and Spongebob Squarepants episodes.  It shows in the final battle royale, in which the violence is more hectic than the LA crafts scene and more absurdly inventive than an ultra-violent comedic cartoon.  It’s Itchy and Scratchy in found footage.  Disembowelment by way of the point-of-view camera, for example, is a new one for me. 
So would I love it or list it?  I’m going with . . . love it!  Though I would probably avoid the cellar--the cellar being a metaphor for the middle third of the film and anything having to do with the Afghanistan subplot.  Yes, I know it’s not a good metaphor.  I know that cellars don’t drag like the middle third of the film and they’re not pointless like the Afghanistan subplot.  But I suppose they’re sort of murky . . .and so is the middle third of the film . . . and so is the U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan!  So yeah.  Where’s that lighthearted peppy synthpop to distract from the awkwardness of this metaphor as we go to commercial?   Why can’t life be like a reality show?

Questions for Joe:

1.  One of the running jokes is that the crew all enjoy an eastern European candy bar named “Doina.”  What’s in a Doina?  

JD: No one knows, Paul, because the ingredients aren't listed for legal reasons. But they're fantastic. My new favorite food!

2.  Why is the girl, Sarah, so interested in getting the Afghanistan story out of her crush?  How does she know that life-shattering tragic stories usually lead to sex?

JD: She wants to know what secrets he contains, like the irresistible and mysterious Doina bar!

3.  Why do the residents of this village all dress like they’re in the 1930s while the Moldovan real estate agent is stuck in some awful polyester nightmare of the 1970s?  

JD: I think this speaks to the timelessness of stereotypes. Speaking of timelessness, Doina bars never go bad. 

4.  Did you catch the frog motif throughout the film?  What was that about?

JD: Alright, to take a break from Doina shilling, the frog motifs in her house are meant to clue you in to the fact that she's a witch:

This is one of the really cool, subtle aspects of the movie! The first indications of her witchiness are expressed through the decor. It's an interesting approach to foreshadowing - to keep their hints in the background the filmmakers literally made them the background!

5.  Who does the “they” in “They’re Watching” refer to?

JD: It hopefully refers to the crack brand marketing team at Doina, who could be sponsors of! If you're watching, and by watching I mean reading, a Rockpaperhatchet sponsorship can definitely fit your budget, no matter what it is! 

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