DVD: Always Watching – A Marble Hornets Story (2015)

September 9, 2015 | By


AlwaysWatchingFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: n/a

Label:  Anchor Bay

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  August 4, 2015

Genre:  Horror

Synopsis: A local news trio become cursed with The Operator, a recurring stalker who can enter and exit any home, yet be seen only through the lens of a video camera.

Special Features:  (none)





Back in 2009, a contest challenged members of an internet forum to create “paranormal characters” from photos of “ordinary” people. The character with an enduring legacy was The Slender Man, created by Eric Knudsen (under nom de plume Victor Surge), whose design – a tall, slender figure dressed in a suit with an obfuscated or a virtually faceless head – and name is redolent of The Tall Man, a somewhat similarly weird character from the Phantasm franchise in which an old ‘tall man’ (played with gusto by Angus Scrimm, who has a cheeky cameo in Always Watching) terrorizes kids and travels through inter-dimensional portals.

Reportedly within a little more than a week after Slender Man’s internet debut, Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage started posting the first of a 26 episode web series on YouTube in a variation on The Blair Witch Project (1999) – found footage that’s assessed, assembled, and distilled into short narrative bursts that gradually reveal the fates of those recorded on a batch of videotapes.



The finale reveals the video camera used to record the images is the curse’s trigger mechanism: whoever begins to use it is destined to die, much in the way the viewing of a videotape in Ringu (1998) and The Ring (2002) results in similarly doomed characters.




Like the twiggy humanoid form found hanging from a tree in Blair Witch, Wagner and DeLage also integrated folk-like symbolism in their episodes, consisting of a crude doll effigy of Slender Man found in a cursed house, and a drawn symbol of a circle with a large “X” that symbolizes (presumably) Slender Man’s sightings and / or where the accursed was compelled to leave a symbol of his supernatural oppressor during a state of increased paranoia.

In the web series, film student Jay acquires a bag of miniDV tapes from classmate Alex, containing both footage of an aborted film titled “Marble Hornets” and Alex’s own paranoid self-filming in which he obsessively catalogued his quest to find the slender figure that appears in some of the footage – always watching, always silent, and seemingly able to enter and leave locked domiciles like a ghost.

After forgetting about the tapes, Jay begins to sift through the undated, unmarked mass of footage and starts posting online sections of what he finds curious, as though compelling watchers on YouTube to share in the mystery and offer explanations for the increasingly weird minutia that lies on the tapes.

Like Blair Witch, Troy discovers the fate of his friend, but the series ends with a decision to search deeper, thereby ensuring the Marble Hornets concept would evolve through subsequent seasons (lasting, thus far, three).


The Feature Film

With each of the roughly 1-7 minute YouTube “entries” earning 1.5 million hits (the intro segment alone has reached almost 4 million hits), it’s clear Wagner and DeLage’s concept has enough legs to evolve into a feature film franchise (and why not, since Ringu spawned sequels and prequels of variable quality, The Ring an abysmal sequel, and Blair Witch an inept sequel).

Always Watching debuted on VOD and DVD, and while Anchor Bay’s disc is a bare bones edition – perhaps a decision to treat the film like a disc version of collated footage – the film does share many of the web series’ attributes.

Instead of a film school student sifting through tapes, the script by Ian Shorr (Splinter) substitutes a newly assembled local news crew – cameraman (Chris Marquette), hot reporter (Alexandra Breckenridge), and station producer (Jake McDorman) – who make use of old videos found in the home of a family that defaulted on mortgage payments and simply abandoned their swanky suburban home in an instant.

Director James Moran allows the story to unfold in similar short video bursts which calm down into longer clips from a wider array of video cameras, but the concept remains the same in telling the story through footage, except that what we’re seeing is (presumably) someone’s edit of the footage, much like the sci-fi thrillers Europa Report (2013) or Apollo 18 (2011), although like those two films, the greater scope of coverage occasionally oversteps the format’s rules, allowing us to see a bit more than we should.

As a found footage thriller, Always Watching has its genuine shocks, and like the web series, a banal urban location becomes chilling by being bathed in nighttime darkness, whether it’s the cellar, upstairs bedroom, or a hotel room. Unlike the web series, Slender Man (renamed The Operator for the fledgling film franchise) can only be seen through a camera lens – the naked eye is unaware of his presence – and while the figure does enter and exit with ease, he also teases his victims by hovering close as they sleep.

The web and film directors realized low light, subtle sounds, and milking the ambiance of a creepy place are worthy substitutes for graphic gore, especially when it involves dank abandoned places. The web series made excellent use of suburban decay – the house where Alex lived has fallen into complete inner ruin, and there’s an old stadium that’s especially eerie – whereas the film balances decay with a road trip in the second half where the three characters seek out the family who filmed their gradual descent into madness.

A new addition to the mythos – besides being seen only through a camera’s lens – is the circle-and-X mark he literally brands on his next victims like a perpetually raw burn, victims acting our Slender Man’s malevolent desires; and the cameraman’s immediate obsession to record his life, which doesn’t really make much sense given he’s already filming himself before the group finds the trove of videotapes.

There’s also an affair, aspects of jealousy, and the road trip that prolong the ending which is similar to the first season of the web series. The best components are the cameraman’s house, which at night becomes a world of rooms and doors from which sounds, shadows, and bad vibes echo. The heavy use of video cameras is also a little reminiscent of soundman Harry Caul, who obsessively records everything around himself in The Conversation (1974), perhaps the seminal film in which an obsessive compulsive’s paranoid behaviour is extended through a brilliant yet self-destructive use of technology.

Both the web series and the feature film are instant snapshots of pop culture paranoia, feeding off each other and the immediacy of viral entertainment while cataloguing the fears suburbanites have of themselves, their lives, and the technology that saves but ultimately dooms them to a looped, never-ending curse.

The dialogue is rather wobbly, and the narrative becomes more conventional because unlike the web series, there’s too much video coverage, resulting in a more linear denouement that runs contrary to the web series disjointed structure. Nevertheless, Wagner and DeLage’s Marble Hornets series has the ingredients to succeed as periodic film installments if its future makers are determined to avoid easy genre clichés.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Marble Hornets web series on YouTube
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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