Written by Elias Levey-Swain
They’re Watching is not an ordinary horror-comedy. It does not blend well the themes of both genres at once, amid the pursuit of some new genre altogether. Micah Wright and Jay Lender’s first film instead asks the question: what would happen if we made a film that began as a comedy, and then everything went horribly haywire and it devolved into a fantastical horror/quasi-Euro-exploitation picture?
They’re Watching is far from character driven, deriving its plot and themes from its innovative format and the setting rather than from the stories of individuals. In the same breath, it embraces its mostly anonymous cast to emphasize its cinéma vérité nature to the necessary extent. I admit to often doubting the quality of a contemporary film when I can recognize not one name in the cast or crew, but They’re Watching has hopefully helped me in small part to kick this habit. The film is able to nurture the talent of its household nameless cast in a way that displays their diverse thespian abilities as much as possible. The reason it is able to do this so easily is that They’re Watching spans across several genres. There are opportunities for the cast to show us all of the tricks up their sleeves in scenes that are dramatic, comedic, campy, and horrific.
In the beginning we in the audience are thrust into the world of a reality-television program. Lender and Wright absolutely hit the nail on the head with their seamless imitation of the cinematography and imagery popularized by reality TV in the mid-1990s. The show follows a young couple as they search for a new home in Moldova and as they settle on an isolated old farm house that truly defines the term “fixer-upper.”
The film next flashes forward to one year later. The film crew who put that episode together is back in Moldova to catch up with the couple after one year of living in/fixing up the home. The crew is all laughs, gags, and goofs until they meet with their boss, the over-the-top and outrageously domineering Kate Banks (Carrie Genzel). Don’t get me wrong, when I say over-the-top I do mean that in a bad way. As noted earlier, They’re Watching begins solely as a comedy. There are dark tones of foreshadowing, sure, but for the majority of the runtime, the plot is just doing its own thing, meandering through rural Moldova with a cranky group of reality-TV professionals. Genzel’s performance is distinctly out of place in this entire first portion of the film. It does not play well to the mumble-grumble of the rest of the cast, nor does it fully embrace the caricature of the ugly American that Genzel seems to be only slightly reaching towards. Regardless, the first hour of the film is all in good fun.
Now, They’re Watching certainly takes its time getting to the blood, guts, and fire, but when it gets there it goes all out. For the last half hour of the film, we humble patrons of the movies are gleefully taken for a joyride through the communal mind of Micah Wright and Jay Lender. This is an entirely self-indulgent 30 minutes, but that is not to say it isn’t entirely enjoyable for the audience as well. No matter how convoluted the story gets, the cast is able to confidently carry the film to the next outrageous plot-point, and so it goes until the title sequence is cued.
If you are a fan of conventional horror, there is no guarantee that you will appreciate this movie. The same could be said of comedy and drama fans alike, but if you love found-footage comedy meets found-footage horror meets witch-hunt — you will probably find something to like about They’re Watching.