The new horror-comedy They’re Watching is a decidedly irreverent spin on the usual ‘witch in the woods’ hocus pocus. First-time directors Jay Lender and Micah Wright aren’t overly concerned about scaring anyone. Instead, they create some fun characters, throw them into a creepy Eastern European village, and then let the supernatural take its course. The last thing we need is another ‘found footage’ movie, but They’re Watching is definitely worth a late-night rental.
Six months ago, the cast and crew of the reality home improvement show, Home Hunter Global, dropped off their latest contestant Becky (Brigid Brannagh) and her soccer-playing boyfriend Goran (Cristian Balint) at a unique fixer-upper in the backwoods of Pavlovka, Moldova. Becky eagerly (and bizarrely) snatches the house from her boisterous realtor, Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko), and sets about restoring “The worst house in Moldova.” This isn’t just any old beater, though. This house has a dark secret that involves witchcraft, murder, and some very disturbing murals painted in the cellar.
The crew returns to film Becky’s progress and is shocked to discover that she’s lovingly restored a cozy cottage in the woods. It’s the kind of place where Little Red Riding Hood would gladly take refuge. Gone are the frogs and corroded ruins; replaced by quaint furnishings and somewhat less disturbing murals in the cellar. Becky is beaming with pride, and her creativity has been energized by all the peace and quiet. It seems almost too good to be true. Surely, there’s something amiss in this idyllic paradise…
Writer-directors Jay Lender and Micah Wright sidestep much of what makes backwoods horror so repetitive and predictable by avoiding most of the goofy witchcraft. Instead, they focus on the interpersonal squabbling and flirtation of the film crew. They’re Watching is much more concerned with comedy yucks than the typical bloodletting yucks. Choosing a first-person ‘found footage’ approach may enhance our fondness for the characters, but is also reduces the scares to almost zero. Horror fans seeking a jolt of adrenaline should probably look elsewhere.
That isn’t to say that the filmmakers totally let you off the hook. Moldova is the perfect setting for backwoods shenanigans. There is always a creepy local-yocal lurking in the background, and everyone stares just a bit too long. One particularly affective scene finds the television crew covertly filming the funeral service of three dead children. It doesn’t produce any scares, but it’s genuinely tense and unsettling. Moldova is the kind of place where the drunken celebration in a tavern can go silent with one poorly chosen word. Think ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ from An American Werewolf in London, only with more banjos and fewer darts.
Mostly, Lender and Wright just want to make you laugh. It’s a tribute to their incisive writing (and perhaps some inspired improvisation from the actors) that these archetypal characters engender so much goodwill. Alex (Kris Lemche) is the sleaze of the group, and gets most of the wicked one-liners. He’s the kind of guy who will openly proclaim that, “Everything is brown in Pavlovka,” even as sinister locals swirl around him. Greg (David Alpay) is the brooding cameraman who suffered some unspeakable tragedy while filming in Afghanistan. He fawns over their privileged blonde intern named Sarah (Mia Faith). Sarah means well, but she’s adorably clueless, which rubs their uber-bitchy boss Kate (Carrie Genzel) the wrong way… often. None of this is particularly interesting, of course, but it provides plenty of fodder for wisecracks and douchebaggery.
The real star of the show, however, is the only (and, therefore, the best) real estate agent in town, Vladimir, whom Alex perfectly pegs as “Disco Elvis.” He’s the kind of smooth operator that can propose an illegal heroin operation while still flashing a convincingly-innocent grin. Diatchenko steals every scene without ever hamming it up, and proves an authentic counterbalance for the ultra-snarky youngsters in the film crew.
The primary problem with They’re Watching, and what keeps it from really hitting its stride, is the leisurely pace. It takes 15 minutes to reach plot points that should have been in the rearview mirror 10 minutes ago. Greg’s big Afghanistan reveal, for instance, lingers until the final moments of the film and has absolutely no bearing on the conclusion. Becky is missing in action for far too long, and things don’t spiral out of control until the end credits are almost in sight.
Still, when things do get crazy, They’re Watching doesn’t hold anything back. It’s unlikely you’ll see a more gloriously over-the-top finale to a film all year. Wanton gore and infectious mayhem will send everyone home happy. They’re Watching isn’t going to re-write the genre, but it’s a fun little popcorn movie that non-horror fans can easily tolerate. If nothing else, it provides catharsis for anyone who feels violent while watching insipid reality television.