Apparently, the found-footage format is making a comeback. Or at least in indie horror circles. We’re just past the halfway point of 2022 and we’ve already Dashcam, Infrared, The Outwaters, Incantation, and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Now He’s Watching hits VOD platforms this week courtesy of writer and director Jacob Estes. Indie movie fans probably best know Estes from his early-2000s bullying drama Mean Creek. Like Rob Savage’s Host, He’s Watching is a DIY pandemic-produced effort starring Estes’ own children and a creative assist from his wife, Gretchen Lieberum. At present, there’s not much out there about He’s Watching aside from a brief synopsis and trailer.
In the midst of a pandemic that’s ripped through adults while leaving children untouched, two siblings pass away the lockdown making their own video diaries. Older sister Iris sends the videos to their parents who are confined to a hospital. Though each message is read, Iris never receives a response. As the days pass, Iris and her younger brother, Lucas, find strange footage neither has filmed mixed in with their own home movies. Someone or something is watching the siblings. Has the family’s story about a boogeyman ‘The Closet Creeper’ come to life? Or is is something even worse?
He’s Watching Less a Story, More a Waking Nightmare
First and foremost, He’s Watching demonstrates what a filmmaker can achieve with a small budget. From top to bottom, this is a family affair with Estes serving as writer and director, his children starring as fictional versions of themselves, and his wife playing one of the creepy figures. The result is really two different movies. Not much actually happens in He’s Watching and there’s a lack of a driving plot. Instead, Estes assembles a variety of randomly shot footage including occasional title cards to weave a nightmare. In other words, He’s Watching operates more like an ambiguous dream similar to 70s surrealist horror Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or the recent We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. And Estes an extremely good job at re-creating the feel and look of nightmares.
…He’s Watching operates more like an ambiguous dream…
In fact, He’s Watching manages to be relentlessly creepy even if it doesn’t always make sense. Estes uses lighting, angles, and edits to create an often disorienting experience. Amongst the more artistic elements, the filmmaker includes nods to more familiar horror iconography. While the ‘Closest Creeper’ is certainly creepy, it’s still a clown and we’ve seen more than a few scary clowns in horror movies. Nevertheless, Estes throws plenty of bizarre images into the footage including a ‘Red Man’, a naked man with a ram mask, and his wife as ‘The Demon behind the Curtain’. Several of the Closet Creeper’s appearances, including a clever shot of it looking down from a skylight, have an unnerving effect. Even if you’re not sure what’s happening, you’ll likely be haunted and entranced by what’s on screen.
He’s Watching Has Dreamlike Coherency to Go Along With Its Visual Style
For all of its visual and atmospheric richness, He’s Watching has little in the way of story. Though Estes sets his found-footage movie in a (fictional pandemic) the backdrop plays no direct role in the narrative. Aside from creating a reason to isolate its siblings, the pandemic just contributes to Estes’ nightmarish background imagery. What’s left is the thinnest of narratives to hold things together. Yes, there’s something about a ‘Closet Creeper’ that may be a creation of their father’s come to life. Later in the movie, Iris and Lucas think that maybe a grandfather made a deal with a demon for fame and success. Maybe everything that happens is just a dream.
Clearly, He’s Watching intends to be surrealist horror. And the story that threads through the movie feels like the kind of ambiguous, shifting narrative that defines nightmares.
Simply put, Estes’ lack of a story fits with the movie’s creative direction. Clearly, He’s Watching intends to be surrealist horror. And the story that threads through the movie feels like the kind of ambiguous, shifting narrative that defines nightmares. But when your movie clocks in at over 90 minutes, the lack of narrative coherency eventually hurts. In addition to a thin story, He’s Watching runs into the same problems as other found-footage movies. Just exactly who assembled this footage? Moreover, Keefus Ciancia’s score contributes heavily to the atmosphere. Yet it again raises the question – if this is found-footage why did someone add music to it?
He’s Watching a Visual and Atmospheric Accomplishment of DIY Filmmaking
Not enough can be said about what Estes and his family accomplishes here with He’s Watching. Filmed at the height of a pandemic and lockdowns with few resources, He’s Watching is visually captivating horror movie. It accomplishes the challenging task of creating a ‘feeling’ – this is a relentlessly disorienting and creepy movie. That is, this latest found footage horror movie almost perfectly creates the experience of a nightmare. All of this comes at expense of story and coherency. Very little in this movie makes sense. What this means is that fans of avant-garde horror will love it. But He’s Watching may be a tough sell for casual horror fans.