Review: HE'S WATCHING, Stark Reminder of How Powerful Found Footage Can Be
Economic and production restraints on filmmakers have been hell for a while now. But it has made for some really interesting horror cinema.
Hosts (2020) and We're All Going to the World's Fair (2021) are among my favorite recent films. They feature emerging talent getting really creative with what they have on hand.
That's also the case with two recent films from the Addams Family, who have turned rural upstate New York into a playground for their entire family to create the imaginative horrors of The Deeper You Dig (2019) and last year's festival smash, Hellbender (2021). But I recently saw a film that combined the found footage aesthetic of the former group with the DIY cinema family effort of the second and it kind of blew me away.
The title He's Watching might sound like a predictable budget indie riff on It Follows (2014). There have been a few of those. But this isn't one of them.
By turns charming, and deeply disturbing, this found footage family effort was the brainchild of filmmaker Jacob Aaron Estes. Estes is an established entity, having written and directed Mean Creek (2004), a film I never thought got its due, and most recently Don't Let Go (2019).
Most of his movies explore the dark side of human nature. Here he takes a mean turn into the supernatural, enlisting the aid of his wife and kids and neighbors to tell the story of two children left to fend for themselves when a pandemic sends their parents into the ICU.
Unaware of how bleak things are, teenage Iris and her pre-teen brother while away the hours as expected, playing video games, eating like kids and playing pranks on one another while they film it all. But gradually it becomes obvious they aren't alone. While a lot of found footage films have used similar ideas, they've only rarely done so this effectively.
The film isn't entirely in the found footage format, but I barely noticed the switch between styles. The whole movie feels uncomfortably intimate, as if we are being invited to watch people without them knowing.
This is at the heart of a subplot in which the children accuse each other of staging mean spirited pranks on one another, thus breaking trust which is desperately needed in their situation. The performances here are solid, especially the two kids, who manage to inject playfulness and realism into a situation that grows more hopeless every time the record button is pushed.
Underneath it all is a commentary on the isolating nature of the pandemic we've all been suffering through. The version of Covid (I can't remember if they actually used Covid as the name for the disease) present in the film is far more deadly. We see dead bodies in homes, in cars, on the street. We see large-scale fires in the distance as the kids try to visit their folks at a hospital in an attempt to get help. The kids find documents relating to the family's precarious financial situation.
All of it seems eerily familiar. Somehow it's even more disconcerting having the film set in an upper middle class neighborhood. These are nice homes, these are nice kids. They are living the American Dream, safe from the harms the rest of us are trying to escape from, until they aren't.
A recent, excellent documentary, The Found Footage Phenomenon (2021), made the fest circuit last year and has been available on Shudder for a while. It made the point that the explosion of found footage cinema is rooted in the number of times filmmakers get it right in the way they use the aesthetic. Story, character, originality are things that continue to be available to all filmmakers whatever kinds of films they are making.
It's also worth pointing out that audiences are still afraid of the same things they've always been. He's Watching is full of those. This is a film that feels connected to shared histories and horrors and dares to use children to make its point. Estes didn't just keep busy during the pandemic; he kept his family together and produced a vital document of the psychic weight felt by American society in crisis.
Jacob Aaron Estes' He's Watching is now available for rental and sale on all major video-on-demand platforms from XYZ Films.
(Full disclosure: Screen Anarchy is owned by XYZ Films.)
- Jacob Estes
- Jacob Estes
- Gerald Davis
- Iris Serena Estes
- Jacob Estes