Released theatrically for one night in October 2017 before its unceremonious arrival on DVD and streaming platforms February 6, Keep Watching is the mash-up of The Strangers, Saw and Unfriended that no one asked for. Presumably conceived by writer Joseph Dembner as some kind of commentary on our fascination with, and indifference to, watching human suffering on social media, he and director Sean Carter construct a messy, suspenseless home invasion thriller that will likely keep audiences busier thinking about the logistics of the invaders’ efforts to chronicle and broadcast their bloody handiwork than the actual brutality or motives behind it.
The film stars Bella Thorne (The Babysitter) as Jamie Mitchell, a moody teenager returning from a 10-day trip with her recently-remarried dad Adam (Ioan Gruffudd, San Andreas), well-meaning stepmom Olivia (Natalie Martinez, Under The Dome) and video game-obsessed younger brother DJ (Chandler Riggs, The Walking Dead). Settling in from the trip, their night is interrupted by the arrival of Matt (Leigh Whannell, Insidious), Adam’s ne’er-do-well brother, asking to stay for the night. But just as everyone heads to bed, a noise draws the family downstairs for a disturbing announcement by the masked Creator (Christopher James Baker, The Purge: Election Year): they must kill an assailant known as The Terror (Matthew Willig, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) or be killed themselves. The night descends into terror as the Mitchells fight for their lives, eventually learning that their struggle for survival is being recorded and streamed for millions of viewers to watch.
Part of the problem with Keep Watching is that there is not one new idea in the film in terms of concept, characters or story – and further, its execution isn’t good enough to distract from the complete lack of originality. The Creator and his team break into the Mitchell house, set up what has to be hundreds of cameras in the most unnecessary and superfluous locations in each room, all to broadcast the potential murder of a random family to their, uh, how many viewers. One supposes that The Terror’s cruelty and violence is supposed to be so awful that it’s all you can focus on, but seriously – how many people would have to be involved to set up something like that? How many monitoring everything to make sure it’s operating properly? (There’s a drone involved as well – surely they can’t watch all 300 angles and pilot that at the same time.) And how is it being broadcast to hundreds or thousands of viewers – which the news media knows is happening, thanks to an incident in the opening scene where viewers of an earlier home invasion perpetrated by the same people are interviewed – without the authorities either shutting down the live stream electronically, or locating its source (or even the victims) directly? “Suspension of disbelief” should not be the only answer.
As Jamie, Thorne is appropriately terrorized, but I’m not convinced there’s enough to the character to justify the Creator’s fascination with her, much less her supposed fortitude in the face of a completely unprovoked series of brutal murders of her closest family members. Hers is the most substantive introduction, thanks to myriad social media posts helpfully revisited where she talks about feeling alone, or disliking her stepmom, or otherwise clearly and concisely articulates what amounts to teenage angst. Conversely, Martinez brings a surprising amount of nuance to Olivia given how little screen time she gets before the carnage begins. But then again, she and the rest of these characters are so woefully underdeveloped that I defy audiences to care deeply about their fates; most disappear or (spoiler) are knocked off before they can make any sort of memorable impression. As far as Creator and The Terror are concerned, don’t expect any answers or explanations to justify their decision to terrorize random families, nor reveal whatever resources they apparently have to finance their endeavor to commercialize serial murder.
At barely 90 minutes, Keep Watching is thankfully brief, hustling through its expository introduction towards some empty suspense and poorly-photographed violence; one thing that stationary cameras do not do well is offer close-up detail when bodies are in motion, and especially when all of the action is shrouded in darkness. Meanwhile, its final scene arrogantly presumes there will be enough interest, or even intrigue, to move forward with a sequel or follow-up – what will the survivors do in order to last another day when faced with a me-or-them quandary virtually impossible to consider? In which case, and at least based on what audiences have been shown thus far, to continue to watch this aspiring franchise feels like the least desirable option, turning a document of brutal violence into a bland retread, and undermining potentially incisive commentary about the hypnotic power of social media by creating content so unengaging that no one will care enough to see it through to the end.