For the first 15 minutes or so of HE’S WATCHING, you might be forgiven if you think that this is just another semi-inspired entry into the found-footage sub-genre of horror. I’m not sure that isn’t exactly what filmmaker Jacob Estes intended. It certainly makes what follows all the more effective for it having lulled us into expecting so much less.
We are deep into another rapidly evolving sub-genre, that of pandemic anxiety. This iteration finds Iris (Iris Serena Estes), an adolescent and Lucas (Lucas Steel Estes), her pre-teen brother, alone and fending for themselves while an unnamed disease ravages the the world, one that doesn’t seem to affect children. Their parents are hospitalized and incommunicado, and the conceit is that the siblings are creating a video diary to show them what they’ve been up to while they were gone.
They put up a brave front, indulging in the usual sibling grumbling, while trying to go about a regular life, but against a backdrop that makes the familiar into something alien and foreboding. Friendly neighbors, masked-up and keeping their distance, wave at them. A public health official drops by to check on them, but also to tell them, via flashcards, not to open the door and to stay away from the hospital. The veneer of normalcy cracks, and tempers are short as they cope with a situation for which neither of them is equipped. Iris attempts to parent her little brother, insisting that he practice the piano and taking him for exercise through the empty streets of their city. As the days drag on, though, and the news of the pandemic becomes more distressing, tempers become short, and what may have started as pranks that they play on one another that include notes written by the “closet creeper,” take on a more ominous and inexplicable cast. Random objects are grouped together in odd places, images appear on their camera roll that neither of them could have filmed, and, of course, the television turns on all by itself, in this case to show a disquieting clown wielding a meat cleaver.
As the tension builds, and it can no longer be doubted that someone or something is in their house, nightmares transmute into altered states that dispel the line between reality and fantasy. The silhouetted woman singing behind the shower curtain may or may not be Lucas’ longing for his mother. Or perhaps it is the sign of a demonic pact. On their own, they desperately try to make sense of what is happening, as if by finding patterns or meaning, it will be less terrifying. Hence, they eagerly accept what the internet offers on demonology as fact. It’s when the explanations that Lucas devises,, to find a hidden message in those random objects, start to make sense to you, despite their implausibility, that you realize just how far under your skin that this deeply unsettling film has crept.
It’s more than the supernatural elements at work here. The fear of abandonment coupled with a world that has suddenly ceased to follow the rules provokes dread even when lights don’t flicker menacingly. When reality has violated your trust, how can you be sure you sister isn’t going to kill you in your sleep, or that you parents haven’t sold you to a demon in return for fame and fortune? Estes taps into it surely and relentlessly and not always metaphorically.
He also faithfully remains within the found footage conceit, but the images he presents, some highly disquieting, have a fiendish artistry to them, with lighting and effects subtly reflecting the action as the pacing builds from quotidienne to disorienting. As the siblings, Estes’ kids are never precocious, never precious. They are rigorously normal in affect and reaction, especially as the pressures of isolation and confinement seethe, erupting into an argument over strawberries that is as chilling as anything else here. Even that killer clown. They have an emotional immediacy without a trace of pretension or artifice that will break your heart with its vulnerability.
HE’S WATCHING is a masterfully crafted film that blends the real and the supernatural so seamlessly that a hammer defying gravity is at once reasonable and terrifying. Taut, smart, and eloquent, it’s a jolt to the system and to the psyche.
N.B. Stick around for the credits, they are as entertaining, in a completely different and puckish fashion, from the film itself.