Friday, September 25, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story (2015)

I have not watched the web-series, Marble Hornets, upon which Always Watching (2015), a new found footage horror movie, is based. 

But judging by how well made the movie is, that’s a big mistake on my part…and one that I will rectify. 

Always Watching: Marble Hornets is a chilling, well-made, and suspenseful film that centers on “The Operator” (Doug Jones), a Slenderman-type ghoul of enigmatic but sinister purpose, and the local news team that -- unfortunately for the individuals involved -- “sees” him. 

Always Watching is a low-budget venture, and yet the lack of resources hardly works against the picture’s success. The performances are strong (especially for a film of this sub-genre), the effects are adequate, and director James Moran executes several creepy scenes that depend on timing, atmosphere, and a slow-burn kind of horror.  Jump scares are present too, of course, but the overall aura of suffusing creepiness and amorphous dread arises from the director’s sense of patience and restraint.  The film is structured as an impenetrable mystery, one that deepens in terms of breadth and depth, but is never really explained.

Although Always Watching doesn’t directly or explicitly ascribe motives directly to the Slenderman character, the implication is that he is something not of this world (or dimension), but capable of controlling our actions.  It’s rewarding that the film doesn’t tread too far into reasons for this Boogeyman’s behavior, and instead allows a seed of ambiguous terror to blossom.  This horrible (though well-dressed thing…) comes into our reality and stalks those who see it, generating fear in these percipient until, finally, it is able to “operate” their bodies, to coin a phrase.  

As I’ve written before, horror works best when there are gaps in terms of explanations.  We don’t fear those things we can quantify and understand. We fear those things we can’t comprehend, or which are outside of the normal day-to-day-experience.

There is a more specific leitmotif here for the eagle-eyed, and a unique, well-thought out one at that.  Throughout the film, at least two of the characters who become targets for The Operator describe their previous actions in life (a violent assault on a boss, and a stalking incident of a would-be girlfriend) as being beyond their ability to stop. 

One might view this lack of impulse control as part of the reason they have been selected by the Operator for his “control.” Already -- even before he is present -- they are being “operated” by forces they don’t understand or can’t manage.  Similarly, this thought -- of being out of control -- leads one to wonder if the same observation is true of the Slenderman.  Is he driven to harm or hurt those who have seen him, whether he wants to or not? Is he too following some natural (or supernatural) set of events that he is helpless to stop?

These are just a few musings about the film, based on a close watching, and there’s a commendable bed-time story lesson component or quality to Always Watching too.  As one character concludes, sometimes looking too hard for something, lets that (malevolent) something into your psyche. 

In other words, if you stare into the abyss long enough…it stares into you too.

“Whatever this thing is, it makes you do things.”

In Columbia, South Carolina, a camera man, Milo (Chris Marquette), works for a local news station with a reporter Sara (Alexandra Breckinridge) whom he had a failed romantic relationship with.  A new producer, Charlie MacNeel (Jake McDorman) assigns them a story investigating what happens to people, property and homes after banks have foreclosed on them.

The team investigates the Wittlock family, which has disappeared from its upper middle class home.  The Wittlocks left in such a hurry, apparently, that a child’s homework is still sprawled on the dining room table, and all the home’s furnishings have been left behind.  Milo discovers strange graffiti in the basement of the Wittlock home, and a box of video tapes in an under-staircase storage compartment.

The tapes reveal that Mr. Wittlock progressively became obsessed with a stranger that he could only see when looking through the camera view-finder. This stranger, in formal attire, seems to have no hair, and no human face.  But he wears a suit and tie.

Milo reviews all the tapes and continues to spot this strange “Operator” in the Wittlock back-yard, and – terrifyingly -- inside the Wittlock house too.  He soon becomes convinced that this strange being is visiting his house as well, and warns Sara and Charlie.   He even has evidence: a brand on his shoulder that matches the graffiti he found in the basement.

Before long, Milo, Sara and Charlie are all under the watchful eye of this terrifying being, and the trio undertakes a road-trip to Colorado to track down the Wittlocks and learn what finally became of the family.

“I didn’t know how to stop.”

Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology and psychiatrist often wrote and spoke of “The Shadow,” or “The Shadow Aspect,” the dark or negative side of the human personality.

According to Jung, this Shadow represents the ego’s unconscious side; the side that feels inferior to others, or obsesses on negative, primal, base emotions. Jung once described the Shadow as a “reservoir for human darkness.”

In a very real sense, the Operator -- or Slenderman -- of Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story is a physical manifestation of the Jungian Shadow Aspect.

Consider that all three main characters -- Milo, Charlie and Sara -- are encumbered by behavior or impulses that they can’t rationally control, or even stop.

Milo stalks Sara after they break up -- filming her every movie -- and admits, “I didn’t know how to stop.” 

Charlie was fired from a news station in Boston, after taking a golf club to his boss’s office in a fit of rage and moral indignation. He confides that his anger issues manifested because he couldn’t control himself.

So like Milo, he couldn’t stop. 

And Sara, from the film’s first scene, is defined in part by her prescription drug problem/addiction. Late in the film, we see she is still using drugs and thus, similarly, can’t stop.  All the film’s main characters are all out of balance, acting on impulses from their “shadow” selves.  .

Accordingly, Slenderman -- the Shadow Aspect -- marks or brands all of them, and the protagonists soon speculate that the Operator “makes you do things.”  That’s a perfect definition of Jung’s Shadow: a primal reflection, separate from the ego, that makes you do things…but you know not why.

In the case of the film’s Shadow, he makes people act violently; he makes them commit murder. He pours into these unfortunate souls, one might say, a reservoir of human darkness. The Operator torments them by taking all control away from them, making them unthinking, unconscious killing machines.  But he isn’t transforming them, in a sense, he is only bringing out those qualities they all openly acknowledged and recognized was inside them to begin with.

I often write in my reviews about how great films utilize visuals that reflect, symbolize or enhance their story. To my delight, the imagery in Always Watching achieves this threshold. 

Several shots in the film are staged showcasing both the characters, and their reflections or projected images; in essence, their "shadow" selves. This is a way to make certain that the film's images reflect the content.  We see that the protagonists' shadow aspects, their out-of-contro impulses, are a crucial part of the equation used against them.

A relevant question, however, regarding the nature of the film's monster, involves how deliberate the Operator’s behavior is.  Does he affect people this way because of a malicious or sinister bent? 

Or does he do it as part of his nature (or super nature?) 

Is the film’s Operator actually, a collective Shadow, made sentient by all the shadow aspects of humanity itself?  If so, then he has always been with us, and likely always will be.  He’s a projection of everything dark inside human nature, and therefore as natural as earth, air, fire, or water. He is elemental.

Always Watching involves characters who “see” the Operator, the heretofore invisible force that, like a puppet master, can pull their strings.  They can see him, perhaps, because they are aware -- or conscious -- of their dark impulses.  

Indeed, Sara, Milo and Charlie boast a desire to see into the dark; a desire, even, manifested in their choice of jobs or professions (local news investigations of dark stories, like bank foreclosures). They not only tell dark stories of our modern society, they transmit those dark stories to others. Their job, one might say, is to record the bad news, and share that bad news with everybody else.

Dan Wittlock, meanwhile, boasts a tragic back story too, one that also allows him to focus on those things go bump in the night. His wife, ultimately, discusses the error of his ways.  “Dan couldn’t stop looking for him,” she tells the reporters.  “He let him into our lives.” 

Two things to consider here:

First, this seems to be a comment on 21st century media; or aptly, the press in the post-9/11 age.  We can turn on the TV at any time during the 24 hour news cycle and watch war, disaster footage, and Donald Trump speeches.  In ways we don’t fully process…we are impacted by these sights, aren't we?  We let these things into our lives. They take up real estate in our psyche.

Secondly, this idea relates directly to the Nietzscheian quote I mentioned in my introduction. Roughly paraphrased, it declares “when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”  Always Watching is a found footage movie about what occurs when the abyss (another word for the Shadow Aspect, perhaps) gazes long and hard into you.

Intriguingly, the channel the abyss or Shadow uses in the film is completely technological in nature.  One can only detect the monster through the eye of the camera viewer. Again, that bears repeating: only our technology detects this boogeyman.

Perhaps this aspect of the story represents an undercover commentary on the ways that humans have chosen to utilize amazing technological devices.  Revenge porn, reality-TV, twitter flame wars, war zone atrocities, and big-budget movies that glorify revenge and violence?  

Those are the things we want to see?

These are the ways many want to use these miraculous devices?

So, recorded on videotape, on social networks, on the Net, are events, perhaps, that could generate or give rise to a conscious or sentient Shadow Aspect. In our data systems, on the information superhighway, rests a collection of dark impulses, stored for posterity.  The film’s Operator comes into our reality through the technological eye, through the lens that captures unsavory and unhappy aspects of human nature.

Again, these are the thoughts I had while watching the movie, reading the clues from characterization, narrative, and mise-en-scene. 

But the great thing about this found footage horror film is that Always Watching doesn’t settle or preach any one specific explanation or answer about the Operator.  It maintains an atmosphere of scintillating and discomforting uncertainty throughout.

One scene, which involves Milo’s nocturnal exploration of his house at night, is scarily effective in raising goosebumps.  The journey ends at a closed closet door upstairs, in the dark, and Milo must decide whether to open it or not.  This is a universal fear in a sense: a closed door, looming in the impenetrable night.  The unknown behind that door symbolizes our fear of the thing that could be within the closet (our shadow aspect?)  The whole set up is part of -- Jung again! -- our collective unconscious; our collective set of fears.

Given all this material, Always Watching is a cerebral and terrifying horror film, and one that you may find troubles your slumber. 

The question that lingers in your consciousness is this one: Now that you’ve watched, now that you’ve seen, have you opened the doorway -- have you made yourself vulnerable -- to your Shadow Self?

Is there something out there...always watching?


  1. I've seen this in Wal-Mart. I wasn't sure about and I figured I'd wait to see if you reviewed it. Thanks. I probably will see it.

  2. Anonymous7:09 PM

    Perhaps I was expecting too much from this film after such a wonderfully written review, but I must admit that this did nothing for me. Even knowing the themes of the film ahead of time, I still didn't like it. I guess it's kind of like looking at an abstract painting - you can see the meaning behind it, yet you can still find it unappealing. Oh well, it happens.

    Ratko H.