As many struggling writers have had to do a time or two or three, I’ve had to write some very stupid things for very little money. I’d much rather write my own stupid things for myself because at the very least I’d have some semblance, some illusion, of control over the stupidity, but, nevertheless, cheeseburgers can’t be made without the beef and you can’t get the beef without the cheddar and the cheddar is that sweet, sweet green, aka money.
What’s money? It might be a foreign concept to many of us horror enthusiasts. The great Dr. Steven Brule described money as “one of paper equals four of coin.” Quite medieval. Greasy old coins with the engraved likenesses of tax-evading slave owners are for 80-year-old pedophiles to polish on The Antiques Roadshow. Those wrinkled sleeves of faded green paper are just certificates of appreciation for working class strippers. A Frank Bennie (Ben Franklin, aka a one-hundred-dollar bill) is just a prop young yachtsmen use to impress their bedfellows before a night of motor boatin’, nose tootin’—blowbangs to the deviated septum.
Now—right here and now—despite the best efforts of Chinese spies, money is what we make of it. Money is, now, any artist’s imaginings; it’s an ever-evolving, cyberpunk expression of value and gratitude given to one another’s avatars in a nano-second of appreciation for OnlyFans’ services rendered or for the smooth acquisition of digital armor. Money, in the here and now of web 3.0, is a quantum musing generated by A.I. that dances for you in your digital wallet (wallets used to be folds of leather carried by cowboys to protect their tobacco and their vouchers at the whore house saloon).
A piece of currency can be anything now. It can be a squid eating a lollipop dancing in neon radiance sent to strangers to have weed delivered to you by a drone. Dancing radishes can be beamed over the dark web to pay serial killers to murder people. Little pink crystalline pyramids are given in reverence to the dexterity of a video gamer with a wireless vibrator up their ass that’s connected to a digital cash register that vibrates every time someone zaps over some sweet, sweet Digi-mon.[i]
Well, long before there were money-making vibrators, we had to get butt fucked by corporate America the old-fashioned way. Some of us still do. Those corporate stooges are who we call Octopi Feet, my lad! Squid Fingers, baby girl! SUCKERS, DADDIO. I’m talking about suckers with a capital ‘S’. People who used to go to the circus and enjoy the peanuts, you feel me? I’m one of them. Always have been and always will be. I’m proud of it the way a dung beetle is proud of its mound of shit it just rolled up into a ball. It’s not something you want to brag about, but at least you’re accomplishing something.
Anyway, speaking of balls of shit, one of the more interesting gigs I’ve had was my very short tenure (about four months) writing copy for a security company. I won’t name names, but this was a fairly large, national home-security provider who was struggling to maintain its foothold in the market with the rise of more affordable home security camera systems like the Ring Doorbell. In fact, the Ring Doorbell had just hit the market and was showing customers how pointless expensive home security packages truly were. There was no need for expensive camera installations when Ring could just be mounted to your front door by any idiot with a screwdriver. There’s no need for a digital call center when Ring can send you live updates directly to your phone while you’re enjoying a chalupa and allow you to speak to your would-be intruder(s) in between fiery Taco Bell shits.
So, one of these corporate strongholds that had a small army of call center workers and thrived on selling overpriced security packages was hemorrhaging contracts. In an effort to be “young and with it” they employed keyboard monkeys like me to churn out home security articles and reviews of their own products that no one would ever read. On top of that, they offered a much more expensive and potentially much more inferior service that was a corporate version of Ring.
All of this was a strategy to do battle in the Algorithm Wars across cyberspace. If they could entertain and entrap the ghosts of artificial consciousness to do their bidding, to lure all the beeps and boops and eyeballs away from Ring, they could potentially save their business. To put it more straightforwardly, this company wasn’t competing to capture the favor of new customers, it was competing to capture the favor of algorithms. Nowadays, this isn’t simply a common occurrence, it’s standard operating procedure. But it was strange for me, as such a dewy-eyed young lad from the shire, to realize that my writing was guided by algorithms for algorithms (FABA not to be confused with FUBU).
I overshared all of this with you because the new Erik Bernard-directed feature I’ll Be Watching triggered some previously forgotten memories that made me wax nostalgic for those simpler times when robotic minds didn’t do all our writing for us (looking at you, ChatGPT). I imagine that every customer of the security company where I hacked up web copy into a keyword generator was somehow duped by the Inception-level layers of algorithmic manipulation overriding their computers with pointless headlines about protecting their homes during cookouts and forced them into purchasing an overpriced Ring knockoff attached to a “smart system” that probably ended up just trapping them in their homes against their will. All of that could have been avoided if they’d just purchased a baby monitor for their front door to monitor their precious little packages and provide a side business on YouTube assembling creepy Ring Doorbell compilations of maniacs and meth heads trying to break in at 2am (which is pretty terrifying).
How does all this nonsense relate to I’ll Be Watching? Well, the movie reminded me of a terrible article I had to constantly update about how smart homes were worse for you than lead paint. The company I worked for went to great lengths to showcase how a smart house can easily be hacked. “Did you know your personal identity can be stolen by hackers accessing your smart fridge?!” While some of the claims they made were outlandish, there were actual cases of smart houses short circuiting and causing accidents, and, even scarier, there were a lot of instances of hackers actually hacking into cameras to watch you or your children. At face value, these types of digital home invasion fears are the impetus that’s driving the horror in I’ll Be Watching, but much like the web copy I used to produce back in 2010, I’m left wondering if this movie was written by A.I. for A.I. Let’s review.
Like an episode of Frasier, the movie starts at an art gallery where the overworked and stressed-out protagonist, Julie (played by Eliza Taylor, whom many may remember from the show The 100) enlists the help of her sister Rebecca (Hannah Fierman of V/H/S, Dead by Midnight Y2Kill) to go to her apartment to take care of her cat Pepper. Julie’s poor pet parenting inadvertently leads to the death of her sister, who’s murdered by a home intruder, an intruder who, in my humble opinion, should have killed Julie. I’m also not convinced that Julie’s “beloved” cat Pepper wasn’t in on the whole deal (it would have been an amazing twist).
Rebecca’s death is at the hands of a man wearing a black mask with a solid white line down the center of it, who I’m going to dub The Median (“Cross The Median and you’re roadkill!”). The Median would be a better killer if he attacked people from the center of the highway, but in I’ll Be Watching he breaks into a home and strangles Julie’s sister Rebecca. Blink and you’ll miss this movie-launching kill, but just like me in the bedroom, it’s an action packed 10 seconds of thrills and chills.
Grief stricken and plagued by guilt over the death of her sister, Julie, and her husband Marcus (played by Ben Morley who is also from the show The 100), are attending couples counseling conducted by Dr. Tate whom all you Mad Men superfans will remember as Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt).
Julie is not only fucked up by her grief and guilt, but this party girl is also fucked up on wine and pills (what my friends in high school used to call BEANS). “No Principal Sherman, I’m not doing pills. I’m eating beans. Individual beans that I keep in Ziplock bags and crush up into dust to breathe into my system through my nostrils.” Anyway, Julie is about one or two tickets away from taking a trip to Ocean City Maryland (that’s Bean Head code for getting fucked up on oxycontin) but, little does she know that she’s about to get even more fucked up in her smart house (not to be confused with Disney’s Smart House).
Marcus and Julie drive into the country in their slick, smart car to their new smart house filled with smart appliances, however this smart house is run by H.E.R.A., the sadistic cousin of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, that controls every electronic device in the domicile.
Once the couple moves in, the start of a slow burning psychological thriller occurs. Julie, spending a lot of time by herself in the house, is hearing men’s voices and feeling as though she’s being watched. The subtle tormenting starts to escalate to the point where she’s being taunted by an unknown number about the death of her sister.
In a panic, she enlists the help of the cowboy from Indian in the Cupboard played by David Keith (not to be confused with Keith David of The Thing, They Live, and making girls go ass-to-ass in Requiem for a Dream fame).
The sheriff (David Keith) doesn’t find any intruders, and Julie is left to wonder if she’s going crazy. Then, in arguably the most gut-wrenching death in the movie, (SPOILERS) Pepper the Cat is locked in a smart washing machine and killed. Is this the work of a sinister killer? Or is Julie really that awful of a pet parent? Probably both.
Pepper the Cat’s death is the final sign that the end is nigh for Julie. In an interesting twist, a man dawning the mask of The Median (the killer at the start of the movie) enters the house and attempts to send Julie to hell to meet her sister. As she’s being strangled, Marcus, her usually absentee husband, shows up to give the killer the old “100.”
There are multiple twists unraveling at the end of this flick. Twist #1: The man donning the mask of the killer I dubbed The Median may not be the original Median … or is he?! This is where the other two fans of I’ll Be Watching and I will be furiously circle jerking over our fan theories about The Median (but we’ll save that for the I’ll Be Watching Median Subreddit).
Before Marcus turns the killer’s head into mush (again it’s probably not the original Median), the killer unmasks and reveals that he was hired to kill Marcus’s wife BY MARCUS. Ol’ Marky Mark is very confused until he sees that his smart phone sent the following instructions to the killer:
TWIST #2: Marcus beats the hell out of the killer. Julie is dead. With the cops enroute, H.E.R.A. reveals to Marcus that Julie had to be killed because she was interfering with their love for each other. H.E.R.A. also tells Marcus not to worry; she’s removed all digital evidence of his involvement in Julie’s murder.
So, in the end, H.E.R.A. was sentient and had a digital lady boner for Marcus. She controlled all the digital devices, sent all the texts to their phones, set the washer to spin with Pepper the Cat locked inside, and shut down the power to their electric car all to psychologically taunt and torment Julie. Then it hired a low-rent, contract killer using cryptocurrency (probably H.E.R.A. rubles) to finally take Julie out of the picture.
We’re left wondering whether Marcus actually did attempt to kill Julie before they left the big city. Was Marcus actually somehow having sex with H.E.R.A. this whole time and wanted all of this to happen!? Was Marcus sleeping with The Median!? OR is Marcus really The Median who’s sleeping with the copycat Median who then shows up at the end in order to pin all of his crimes onto Marcus before whacking him off … to death!?
This movie is sort of a blend between The Rental (2020) and Fatal Attraction (1987), but the obsessive psychotic lover is Hal 9000’s great grandchild H.E.R.A. and the thrills are few and far between. Some of the best moments happen in the very beginning and the very end of the movie. The ride between isn’t terrible, but it’s a slow burn, and I think one of the reasons movies like I’ll Be Watching and other home invasion movies like The Rental or You’re Next often induce sleep paralysis is that they do too much telling and not enough showing. They do a great job at weaving an interesting plot and setting up something big, but the tension the characters are feeling, like the unhinged mania that comes with feeling like you’re losing your mind, isn’t palpable to us when the movie falls short of completely plugging us into the world it’s creating through the eyes of the protagonist.
With that said, all the performances were great given the material the cast was working with. I mean, Eliza Taylor’s acting is a little stilted, but her character is supposed to be fucked up on that lean most of the movie, and all the other characters are in and out of the movie so quickly that it’s hard to truly judge whether their performances are good or bad. They were there. They were professional. They were intelligent and spoke clearly.
Ultimately, it comes down to the overall story. I’ll Be Watching could have played better if it was either shorter, like a 30-minute episode of a thriller anthology, or if Julie’s psychological torment by H.E.R.A. was ramped up to more insane levels. There are lots of missed opportunities for more action beats while Julie is in the house struggling with whether she’s going crazy. We don’t feel her struggle with insanity. There could have been more strange accidents, more taunting, more injuries, more sinister deliveries, more bizarre malfunctions, or even more terrifying ways for H.E.R.A. to try and separate Julie from her husband like using smart vacuums to trip her down the stairs and to send her to the hospital, locking her in a smart freezer, or using drones to scoop her up and drop her into a quarry.
I was dreaming up all these ideas while I was watching I’ll Be Watching because I wanted to be watching something else, but that might have less to do with the movie being lackluster and more to do with the fact that I may have undiagnosed ADHD. I mean, when it comes to watching anything, it’s like someone is sawing into the front of my face while Egyptian scarabs screech into my ears … on second thought … maybe I have something much more serious going on in my brain. While I call the local clinics in my area to see if they accept collectible pog slammers as a form of co-payment, tell your Alexa that you love her with all your heart, and if you’re bored on a Sunday afternoon have her cue up I’ll Be Watching.
[i] Digi-mon is arguably an inferior version of Poke-mon that explores the nightmare world of your Tamigachi coming to life, jumping out of its little digital computer, and battling other Tamagotchis. I refuse to explain what a Tamagotchi is.