What I'm Watching: Always Watching
When I found Always Watching, I had never heard of Marble Hornets, but I knew Slenderman, and of course he's a natural for found footage movies. I recognised some of the cast, and the trailer gave off a good vibe for a movie, so I dove in and checked this out.
The plot revolves around a cameraman and editor, Milo, and the new reporter he has a crush on, as they're doing a largely puff piece on homes being abandoned and the crews who clean out the homes so they can be resold, and stumble into a deeper mystery.
They come across an abandoned home that's in better shape than most, still filled with stuff, and is not in the normal state they find things. They find a box of video tapes, because what's a found footage flick without finding a box of video tapes, right?
But since the family that lived there weren't kicked out, and just up and left, these reporters smell a mystery and diligently slog through the hours and hours of videotapes. Or more accurately, the producer tells Milo to do the gruntwork.
However, what Milo stumbles upon is a mysterious figure that can only be seen through the lens of a camera. And on top of that, it's like an infectious idea that once you see it, it homes in on you, and comes after you.
And oh, how I love that sort of idea. It makes the found footage nature necessary to the narrative, for one thing. And I just love infectious ideas as I've said many times, that once something gets in your head, you can't get rid of it...and it will kill you.
Always Watching uses cameras to good effect, and much like Paranormal Activity and its hum, this movie knows how to use film making to slip in warning signs so you know when the bad stuff is about to happen, by having the cameras and tapes glitching when the Operator is hanging around.
There's something I always find so effective about randomly glitching videotape, and I don't know what it is. Mix that in with something that is there one second and gone the next, and for me, it causes some good chills.
I love a lot of the visual tricks this movie does. Like the glitches, and having the footage turning red, and just how the characters come up with various ways to use the cameras as surveillance to watch out for the Operator, especially when they project the live footage all around them, to immerse themselves in the footage to keep a better eye out for any suddenly appearing heads in the distance.
This is visually one of my favourite found footage films, for those reasons, and that they keep everything very simple. They don't go for the more garish yet still effective monster effects of something like Grave Encounters with their distorted monsters that largely come out of a computer or effects department, and use the effective creepiness of this mysterious, silent, appearing figure that just doesn't need any enhancement. It just *is*. He's tangible, he's there, and he is RIGHT BEHIND YOU.
The weakness of the story also comes from its strength, and that's the mythology. While the characters do get some answers of the sort as to why these particular events are happening to them, you KNOW there's a bigger world here, and that comes from the rest of the Marble Hornets universe/story told via the YouTube series. That's connected, but a separate story in the same universe. I only even know to call this movie's take on the Slenderman mythos "The Operator" because I wanted to know more about this universe and wiki pages told me that is what he's called.
But, it did make me interested in the world they're creating, and want to see more of Marble Hornets, so that's a plus in their favour, isn't it? And also, that's the sheer, brilliant *insidiousness* of this whole thing. The idea is a memetic viral idea that comes after you the more you watch. The more you watch, the more it comes, the more likely you are to die. That's the entire basis of the horror. So at the same time, it's *making the audience want to watch more* which feeds right back into the horror. And of course, once you've seen him, it's too late. That's brilliant, as the idea draws the viewer into the story, and makes them a part of it too. It's such a devious roundabout curse. You need to watch to make sure your safe, but the more you watch, the more you see, the less you ARE safe, but if you *don't* watch, he's still *there* and...
Let's take a moment to talk about the brilliance of Doug Jones being cast as Slenderman/The Operator. How many roles have been played by him where he's wrapped up in a bodysuit, and/or we never see his real face, and/or even hear his own voice? In a lot of ways, Slenderman is almost a role Doug was *born* to play, or a culmination of it all. It's a natural fit and of COURSE this amazing actor should be Slenderman. And he plays it perfectly, or at least as perfectly as you can play a guy just STANDING there. But man does he stand creepily. It IS a shame that he's so little in the movie, and doesn't do a lot, but I honestly don't think the character would have as much of a terrifying presence without Jones bringing *something* to it. He makes standing there look terrifying, and that's a rare ability. If you need a guy who can make you freaked out just by standing there, with subtle movements, or the tilt of his head, well, go ask Doug Jones.
The trio of main characters fighting to stay alive are all well created, and very three dimensional. They have their good and bad sides. Sara is smart, with a bright future in reporting (If she survives this...), and good screen presence, but she also has a drug addiction that comes and goes as things get worse. Milo seems like a good guy, but he also has issues with letting go, and is a bit of a super creepy stalker at times. And Charlie also is a nice guy, but they give us hints of his dark side here and there along the way. You don't normally get much in the way of backstories and personal lives in found footage, but Always Watching gives you quite a bit, and really fleshes these characters out surprisingly well, for only having 90 minutes to spend with them.
Always Watching is full of likable characters slowly unraveling as the whole mystery deepens, and it's great that making them reporters works well on multiple levels. By making the found footage explainable and necessary to their lives, giving them a natural drive to solve this mystery, which can only end badly. The mystery unfolds naturally, with them discovering clues and digging deeper into what happened to the Whitlock family in a natural enough way, and the characters never feel like they're doing anything stupid. Everything expands naturally from them being reporters, and that's a perfect way to explore a story like this.
While it never transcends a lot of the found footage tropes, it does have some good writing, and has a very nice tension bubbling throughout it. It doesn't do anything special, but it's a great example of what have become the classic tropes of this storytelling genre. You really feel for these characters, who are all good people, in a bad situation, and you want them to survive and figure things out, as their world comes crashing down around them.
It's not the best found footage flick, it only brings a few new interesting visual tricks to the table, but what it does, it does VERY well, and this movie is very enjoyable, save for a few sequences that are very long and drawn out when someone, usually Milo, hears something, glimpses something in the camera, and wanders around his WHOLE house looking. The movie does use that time to get in some effective tension, and flickers in the occasional Operator, but you KNOW those sequences could've been shorter.
Always Watching is definitely one of the more effective found footage movies, building well off the more recent urban legends, with well written characters, and a great creepy vibe. It may not provide all the answers, or even many, but it is one heck of a ride. Definitely worth checking out! I hope to see more of this world in the future.