I rest my case that THEY’RE WATCHING is one of the most egregious examples of a third act entirely destroying a horror film. Sarah, Alex, Kate, and Greg, are the crew of a home improvement show travelling to Moldova. Their goal is to film an episode on Becky, an American potter who has been hard at work converting an old abandoned home into an art studio. Soon, a local legend involving a witch begins to cause strife between the film crew and the inhabitants of Pavlovka, and it’s off to the races. While perhaps not reinventing the wheel, the fact that the characters are involved with a television show at least gives the camera a reason to continue to roll throughout the film, which is more than can be said for most found footage.
It’s a general concept we’ve seen time and time again, but THEY’RE WATCHING’s main saving grace is its tonal refreshment. For large segments of the first and second acts, THEY’RE WATCHING is not distinguishable as a horror film, which is both a point for and against it. Because of its comedic chops, largely carried by the absolutely delightful and infectious Vladimir, Moldova’s sole real estate broker, the competent scenes of traditional found footage fare sprinkled throughout are rendered middling and generally ineffective apart from two nasty reveals as things are heating up. But, however non-frightening THEY’RE WATCHING may be, it still at least checks the fundamental box for entertainment value, a marked improvement on the recent swath of self-important found footage fare.
While THEY’RE WATCHING may not be an impressive demonstration of horror tropes in and of its own right, its narrative and characters are surprisingly well-written and refute many of the stereotypical beats we’ve become accustomed to. THEY’RE WATCHING manages to include a red herring in terms of just what exactly the locals want and just who exactly they think the witch is. Throwing us a few twists and turns in terms of friendly relations between the film crew and the denizens of Pavlovka, tension is juggled with unusual panache. We’re even legitimately sad when a misunderstanding in a bar effectively severs any hope of reconciliation.
Although the final 15 minutes of the film are irredeemable, the gradual switch to more traditional horror fare starting around the hour mark is admirably handled by allowing character tensions within the group to guide our hand through the emotional shift. Severing its comedic ties by having arguments of increasing acidity manifest themselves, THEY’RE WATCHING avoids half-assed dark humor and confidently retires the chuckles.
These storytelling endeavors are assisted by the almost entirely stellar acting and character writing. While the character archetypes may not be particularly inventive, they all have distinct shortcomings and character flaws that contribute to the toxic group morale by the end of the film. The only notable misstep is an unfortunate romantic subplot between Greg and Sarah, which makes use of an entirely incongruous backstory involving Greg’s involvement as a photographer in Afghanistan.
But, alas, all good things must come to an end, and as mentioned a few times before, THEY’RE WATCHING’s climactic scene is unforgivable. The amateur hour special effects bonanza that closes the film is as ill-advised as they come. Once the witch reveals herself as just that and begins to wreak havoc on Pavlovka, cheaply animated flashes, lights, tentacles, and blood fly willy-nilly, contributing to a jaw-dropping lack of taste and poise that hadn’t been present up to that point. The whole thing feels like a segment of V/H/S: VIRAL, and I mean that in the least complimentary sense possible.
It’s a shame, too, because THEY’RE WATCHING could have been an unexpected surprise. Defying genre expectations through both specific elements of its story and overall tone and atmosphere, the film is comfortably familiar but consistently amusing until it jumps the shark. Found footage was never meant to highlight special effects, as its attempts at faux-vérité are meant to emulate grainy handheld cameras manned by “normal” people, and THEY’RE WATCHING’s bafflingly masturbatory inclusion of collegiate digital arts cuts the legs out from under it.
THEY’RE WATCHING is a pleasant surprise until its third act, where it entirely squanders the good will accumulated through its deft use of humor on an orgy of cheap CGI and special effects.