Jacob Estes’ He’s Watching is a superb example of efficient horror filmmaking. It’s a punk rock art film with a sharp sense of humor. It’s a low-budget genre flick that could take place in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. Whereas many horror films peak with WTF moments and then burn out via lackluster third acts, He’s Watching offers a smooth and lasting buzz. In both form and tone, the COVID-themed production stands out as one of the year’s most playful and effective thrillers.
He’s Watching stars Estes’ children in their feature debuts. The on-screen chemistry of Iris Serena Estes and Lucas Steel Estes will likely remind genre fans of the sibling relationship between Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015). In He’s Watching, the adolescent protagonists entertain themselves at home while their sick parents recover at a local hospital. Iris and Lucas document their lockdown-style experience, and they get freaked out when it appears that someone — or perhaps something — has been using their phone cameras. In a slick narrative wrinkle, the siblings don’t seem to trust each other, which in turn raises questions about the oneupmanship dynamic within the home. As Lucas jokes around in the foreground, Iris mostly minds her business in the background. Meanwhile, a “Closet Creeper” lurks on the Estes family property. Given the found-footage premise, He’s Watching allows the audience to consider numerous possibilities.
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He’s Watching shares thematic elements with Estes’ 2004 debut feature, Mean Creak, a film about a teenage boy who seeks revenge against a bully. Both movies utilize hand-held cameras to explore character POVs; both movies lighten up dark narratives via jokester teens. In He’s Watching, however, the leads are naturally less naive. They understand the world around them and certainly how they are perceived by peers. Incidentally, the brother-sister aspect is crucial to the film’s overall mood. Right away, Iris and Lucas joke around with each other but don’t necessarily try to be funny for the camera. Their comedy feels natural, not forced — a narrative component that works so well in nearly all of the Adams Family films, whether it’s Rumblestrips (2013) or the more ambitious Hellbender (2021), both of which spotlight a star-in-the-making, Zelda Adams. He’s Watching — even with all its technical excellence — would be a difficult hang if the young leads didn’t seem to understand comedic timing or basic filmmaking concepts, such as staging and story beats. Fortunately, Estes’ film immediately feels authentic because of the performances, dialogue and cinematic foreshadowing.
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Estes seems in full command of his craft during He’s Watching. An early window gag feels genuinely terrifying, and the overall mise-en-scène is loaded up with detail to entertain and/or frazzle the audience. Estes also incorporates several needle-drops, which at once enhances the indie vibe while calling to mind the youthful exuberance of Mean Creak’s early scenes. There’s so much to consider in the visual design and how the young protagonists navigate this specific world. A naked woman shower visual adds an Oedipal element, and it can also be viewed as a trolling gag when everything is said and done. He’s Watching is a practical and efficient horror film in the style of Rob Savage’s Host (2020), but its brilliance lies in Estes’ subversive funhouse mirror approach.
XYZ Films released He’s Watching digitally on July 21, 2022.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.