Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Director: James Moran
Writer: Ian Shorr
Producer: Jimmy Miller, M. Riley
Stars: Alexandra Breckenridge, Chris Marquette, Jake McDorman, Doug Jones
A TV news team investigating a family’s disappearance uncovers evidence of a supernatural stalker who targets them as his next victims.
I’ve written before about how mediocre movies are the toughest type to review, because coming up with several hundred words to elaborate on “meh” can be a wordsmithing challenge worthy of Steinbeck or Hemingway. The second hurdle to jump is that oftentimes a review can only be as entertaining of a read as a movie is good or bad. Therefore, I apologize in advance for this average critique of the average “Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story,” a movie so deserving of a simple shoulder shrug as a response that I suspect the next few paragraphs will be similarly describable as “merely ok.”
Spinning out of the wildly-popular “Marble Hornets” webseries, which in turn spun out of the wildly-popular internet urban legend of Slender Man, “Always Watching” has about as much to do with its subtitle namesake as “Halloween III” does with the John Carpenter classic. Slender Man, known as The Operator in “Marble Hornets” mythos, of course makes an appearance. That’s basically where the relationship to the webseries begins and ends. Good news for any uninitiated fearful of being unable to follow along, bad news for “Marble Hornets” fans hungry for a meaningful extension of the continuity.
The WZZC news team of mild-mannered videographer Milo, slightly-brash producer Charlie, and caught-between-both-men reporter Sara have the not-so-plum assignment of producing a segment on home foreclosures. Six o’clock news filler turns into a missing persons exposé when the three-person crew uncovers an abandoned home, an inexplicably vanished family, and a box of DV tapes pointing at a supernatural stalker as the culprit. Milo, Charlie, and Sara then become The Operator’s next targets for torment, as their lives are upturned by unexpected appearances of the suited and slender shape, as well as paranormal possession driving the trio to commit horrible acts.
Despite borrowing part and parcel from an overly familiar “found footage” formula, “Always Watching” deviates from tried-and-true patterns in ways that are not for the better. Those miscues start with the characters.
“Always Watching” doesn’t have a main character worth an attachment. Milo is initially appealing, with an uneasy smile and awkward demeanor suggesting a likable AV nerd type. Then it is promptly revealed that Milo has an unhealthy obsession with one-time-fling Sara, resulting in the restraining order-worthy behavior of following her while she shops, attends a twelve-step meeting, and goes about unaware that her co-worker is a stalker. Charlie is literally introduced as an “Ivy League douchebag,” and generally lives up to his unflattering description. Sara has some brief backstory about substance abuse, but an air of disregard for Milo’s crush coupled with an attraction to said “Ivy League douchebag” leaves one to wonder what is intended to be attractive about her.
More problematic, the dynamic between the threesome is flawed from the outset. Consider how “The Blair Witch Project” (review here) started by developing a discernible connection between Heather, Josh, and Mike. Their trio is seen sharing jokes, laughing, bonding over beers, and arcing into clear friendship before circumstances drive them to turn on each other. “Always Watching” uses similar scenes, except its group opens as an awkward love triangle with uneasy professional partnerships. They are already hiding various degrees of contempt for one another, and that manifests as a demagnetizing turnoff for viewers looking for someone to relate with.
More problematic still, The Operator is so empty as a personality that his ability to frighten fizzles after a few short appearances. The menace of a mysterious figure carries a different impact as a still image. In a 90-minute live-action film, a villain who literally does nothing but stand and stare is only terrifying if you are the one being stalked. The Operator doesn’t run, raise his arms, or make a sound. He merely moves in jump cuts and manipulates others into physical fights, making for an antagonist almost as uninteresting as the protagonists.
Of course, emulating a template for first-person horror this closely means, as always, encountering the traditional problems all such films have. Chiefly, the eternal “found footage” questions of why all of this footage was recorded and who compiled it together in the aftermath?
Footage recovered from the missing family makes some sense. The Operator can only be seen through the lens of a camera, explaining why Mr. Wittlocke was always recording while trying to understand the nature of the lurker in the trees outside his family’s home. For Milo, there is no rational reason to record himself watching the Wittlocke home movies, for instance. Making less sense is a scene such as when the passage of time is shown via montage of Milo eating, listening to music, and taking a nap while waiting to capture The Operator on camera. Why wouldn’t whoever put this final video together just edit out such unimportant moments entirely? As happens often in mediocre “found footage,” the conceit doesn’t always fit snugly with cinematic storytelling techniques.
“Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story” is inoffensively unremarkable. Serviceable and competent also qualify as adjectives, but paranormal “found footage” earning marks for being passable simply isn’t the same as being deserving of a recommendation.
Review Score: 45