Producer: Jacob Aaron Estes   Director: Jacob Aaron Estes   Screenplay: Jacob Aaron Estes   Cast: Iris Serena Estes, Lucas Steel Estes, Susannah Rogers, Gretchen Lieberum and Jacob Aaron Estes   Distributor: XYZ Films

Grade: C-

People did a great many things to fill the time in lockdown during the COVID pandemic.  Some read books, or binged on TV, or went about their business as essential workers.  If you were an entertainer, you tried to find ways of performing even in isolation, whether online or from your balcony.  Writer-direction Jacob Aaron Estes (2004’s excellent “Mean Creek” and 2019’s mediocre “Don’t Let Go”) decided to make a movie at home, starring his kids, teen Iris and younger Lucas, and featuring himself, his wife Gretchen Lieberum and a scattering of friends and neighbors in bit parts, often as corpses, ghosts and weird apparitions.

The result is “He’s Watching,” a ragged thriller that often feels like the improvised home movie it actually is.  The premise is that a plague has struck the city—not COVID, but something that, according to a briefly-seen news report, affects only adults, leaving children immune.  So we find Iris and Lucas home alone after their stricken parents have gone into the hospital, which is off limits to visitors and can’t even provide information on patients’ conditions.  The kids have to take care of themselves.

At first they’re in pretty good spirits, playfully bugging one another and going outside for dips in a neighbor’s pool or a bike ride.  But as the days roll on and their parents remain out of touch, they start to get on one another’s nerves, especially after the pranks they play begin to irk.  Iris accuses Lucas of leaving stuff in the hallway, he denies doing it, and thus begins a series of spooky occurrences that suggest that somebody’s in the house not only watching them but filming them and posting the videos on their devices.  They call the unwanted guest The Closet Creeper.

From there the creepiness escalates, with spectral apparitions and strange noises.  Eventually they begin to suspect that some evil force is involved, and consult an online demonologist (Susannah Rogers, who takes on a few other bit parts as well), who gives them the notion that what’s happening to them might be the result of a pact their father made to deliver them in return for fame and fortune.  In trying to understand, they resort to ritual and trying to decipher some obscure clues.

The material focusing on the kids, shot largely by Estes in gritty, hyper-realist, rough style, gets repetitive as we watch Iris and Lucas prowling the hallways; but it nonetheless remains creepy, not just because children are involved (and they’re a pretty likable pair), but because the sound design credited to P.K. Hooker and Adam Baker is pretty effective.

On the other hand, the gruesome imagery and montages inserted into the more “ordinary” footage are less impressive.  There are a few moments that work, but most of the stuff isn’t imaginative enough to be genuinely scary; watching masked, elaborately dressed figures climbing up snowy hills or screeching into the camera just doesn’t cut it, and the scenes of corpses piled up in cars or on sidewalks are funnier than frightening.

The upshot is that “He’s Watching” probably worked better as a joint family project during pandemic lockdown than it does as a finished film in its aftermath.  But it does send some shivers down the spine, and it’s nice getting to know Iris and Lucas.