[MILD SPOILERS AHEAD]
If the term “thirdworldsploitation” doesn’t exist yet, then I’d like to officially coin it. Thirdworldsploitation are films which feature well-to-do first world people traveling to destitute areas and falling victim to the horrors lurking beneath the mire of old world superstition and poverty. Sometimes the antediluvian prejudices they encounter are eventually justified—the evil monsters are real, the witches in the woods exist. But whatever the end result, along the way the local culture is transformed into a barbaric Other for us to pity or revile. Thirdworldsploitation frequently cross-pollinates with other genres: Italian cannibal films set in the Amazon; hillbilly horror; and even more traditional thrillers like John Erick Dowdle’s No Escape (2015).
Jay Lender and Micah Wright’s They’re Watching combines thirdworldsploitation with found footage, following a television crew traveling to rural Moldova to do a segment on a Los Angeles artist who moved to the area and renovated a desiccated cabin. The film crew is staffed with a merry band of oblivious idiots and raging @ssholes who I suppose are meant as a kind of self-reflexive racial commentary: despite how poor, foolish, and bloodthirsty the native Moldavians are, the real jerks are the white Americans. Of course, when members of their group start getting disemboweled and crucified alive over suspected witchcraft, this paper-thin premise shatters.
In addition to its deplorable depiction of impoverished Eastern Europeans as cowardly, paranoid, cruel, and superstitious, They’re Watching fails at a fundamental level of storytelling—something I find surprising considering both Lender and Wright spent years as writers and animators for a number of Nickelodeon shows including Angry Beavers, Hey Arnold!, and Spongebob Squarepants. The plot holes are preposterous, especially a third act twist which reveals that one character has, of course, been Planning This Whole Thing All Along even though it makes no sense whatsoever. The characters are either too cruel, too annoying, or too stupid (one of them yells out the Romanian word for “witch” in the middle of a crowded bar as a toast) to care about. And the last ten minutes literally contain the worst special effects I’ve seen in a movie in years—and I’m including tongue-in-cheek horror parodies like Jordan Rubin’s Zombeavers (2014). They look like they were added using cheap iphone software.
But what of my Three Rules of Found Footage?
1) Give a plausible reason why the main character would be recording the events of the film.
2) Allow a plausible explanation for how the footage was recovered.
3) If you MUST include non-diegetic editing and/or music, explain who is manipulating the footage and for what purpose.
Numbers one and two are followed to the letter. But the film fumbles number three: there is no explanation for how multiple pieces of footage from multiple cameras were edited together and there is intrusive non-diegetic music everywhere. There is no reason why They’re Watching needed to be found footage. And there’s no reason for anyone to watch it.