The Movie Waffler New Release Review [VOD] - HE’S WATCHING | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [VOD] - HE’S WATCHING

He's Watching review
A pair of young siblings are menaced by an evil presence as their parents recover from a  mystery illness.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Jacob Estes

Starring: Iris Serena Estes, Lucas Steel Estes, Jacob Estes, Susannah Rogers, Lonny Ross

He's Watching poster

Seen the new Halloween film? Halloween Ends. Yeah, me too. Bit hmmm, innit. You have to feel for the filmmakers, though: stuck between honouring the brand identity of the franchise and the need to incorporate novelty (and how!). At the time, the streamlined menace of the original, the absolute stripping down of horror to a basic, insistent threat, was sharp and fresh. Where is there to go apart from glib replication? (I do like the varied ways the franchise desperately attempts to renew interest, illustrating the conundrum; from a completely unrelated story in part 3 - a Waffler touchstone - to all that cult stuff the series swerved into, and finally this Christine mash up). The best horror reacts to its contexts, and Halloween’s cynical urban survivalism shifted the genre into modern, domestic milieus (I still love the cruel compound phrasing of its original title: ‘The Babysitter Murders’). This new one relies on callbacky lore, characters established when the target audience weren’t born, and Pavlovian responses to that piano chord: give it a rest, Myers. Talk about the banality of evil! This month’s He’s Watching also locates its horror in domestic settings, with a looming figure tracking its young (12 and 15ish) charges. However, unlike the middle-aged Halloween franchise, He’s Watching, with its abstract narrative and social media mode of address, is the sort of film which feels that it could only have been made over the last year and one which will only be really understood by an audience as similarly youthful as its protagonists.

He's Watching review

Perhaps protagonists, in the hoary Syd Field meaning, is the wrong definition for our two central players though, as they don’t push action forward, or seem to have any especial need: they instead exist in an enforced limbo, and are more acted upon than acting (their situation is, of course, the adolescent experience epitomised). We follow Iris Serena Estes and Lucas Steel Estes, whose names correspond with that of their actors’, as they lounge about their (very nice) home and record video messages for their absent parents, as all the while an unnamed pandemic builds outside and a more tangible threat attempts to get inside.  Iris Serena Estes (amazing name) wrote the screenplay, too, with her dad Jacob Estes directing along with playing The Clown and The Red Man characters who wind the kids up. This queasy blurring of reality and fiction is intensified by the narrative which reveals Iris and Lucas are the children of a film director... whose horror films are visual peans to the occult. Yikes!

The conceit is neat, but the dissonant, empty atmosphere of He’s Watching is what makes it so compelling. Like this year’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, it fully captures the dissatisfying, habitual participation that characterises screenlife in the 2020s. Pleasingly, the production of this film correlates with its themes and storyline: made during Covid lockdown by the Estes family, here our characters are housebound due to an epidemic (thankfully, as nothing would date a film quicker, Covid is not specifically mentioned, and the iconography used to communicate whatever is decimating the population is more zombie apocalypse a la mode). Serena and Lucas play around with their phones, recording their everyday life, because, let’s face it, that’s what we all do now, especially dem yute. But the familiar practice is amplified by their parents’ absence (they’re in an unvisitable hospital), and the lack of anything else to do, giving the reliance on technology and that teenage need to connect, a seething urgency.

He's Watching review

The found footage mode is cleverly and freshly manipulated here, too. He’s Watching incorporates different textures and tones into its vibrant mise-en-scene: there is the usual approach of the kids using separate phone cameras and merged CCTV footage, but as well as this the point of view slips between first person(s) to third, along with the transitions to Dad’s previous films which intersperse the narrative like broadcast signal intrusions, which gives the storytelling the deliberate dislocation of a social media feed. When it isn’t briefly visible in the deep frame of the Estes’ footage, the threat is using their phone and cameras to POV spy on them, spooky events which we in turn watch them play back: a thorough and dizzying use of the form. And more than this, just like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, you’re never quite sure if we’re watching someone’s fiction, that Serena and Lucas the characters aren’t presenting a film which they’ve made in diegesis, as Serena and Lucas the filmmakers literally have.

He's Watching review

Or even if such narrative positioning matters. There’s an insouciance to He’s Watching, which understands the playful fantasies and posture of social media, its compulsive futility and cheerfully performative nature (which is something only younger users, in embarrassed opposition to their soapboxing parents, ‘get’). Serena and Lucas’ performances evocatively capture how children at that age behave, a skittish presentation of rodomontade and humiliating vulnerability (the shots of a sink piled with dirty dishes broke my heart). And crucially, it’s also really scary (one jump scare caused me to scribble down ‘FUCKING HORRIBLE’ in my notes), building towards a denouement which has the dynamic of an MR James curse: the possessed figure ‘remains beautiful to those it loves’ *shudder*. A side note: throughout the film, music is referenced via a stacked soundtracked and Lucas’s own piano playing. It’s another mark of this film’s sophisticated taste that a fetching cut out of Prince can be spotted in the house, along with a copy of Roy Ayers' ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’.

He's Watching is on UK/ROI VOD from October 17th.

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