Do Not Watch

Do Not Watch (2023)

One of the paradoxes of the horror genre is that it attracts – and keeps – the attention of its willing audience with things that they might, in any other context outside of film viewing, find unpleasant, alarming and repellent. The very title of Do Not Watch captures this contradiction: for what should serve as a straightforward warning and deterrent is conversely, for the right kind of viewer, enticement and come-on. If you have not been put off by the title, chances are you will continue watching despite many subsequent intradiegetic warnings, from characters or on-screen text, of the real dangers that this particular, peculiar spectacle represents. For here the forbidden, even the potentially harmful, is also transgressive, which is to say that the experience it offers is one of horror’s principal attractions. Caveat emptor.

Of course, horror is a safe space, and the viewer is always shielded by the screen from its frightening, menacing content. Yet cinematographer Justin Janowitz’s feature debut as director finds ways to make that screen seem a less secure source of protection. For it all at once purports to be ‘found footage’ – specifically a file labelled “Do not watch” and “discovered buried with arson wreckage” – that mimics the realities of reportage, while also being meta-found-footage, offering glimpses within itself of other recordings and representations through whose many unearthed layers an evil has been mediated and multiplied down the ages. In other words, the viewer is implicitly just the latest in a long succession of those whose very act of viewing has opened a doorway to something persistent and pernicious.

An unnamed documentary director (Alix Angelis) is investigating, with a doggedness that quickly verges on wide-eyed obsession, six mysterious disappearances at post-production studio Illusion Post, whose owner Abraham Lorentz (Garth Wynne-Jones), manager Ollie (Jodie Bently) and other staff (Ezekiel Ajeigbe, Brendan McCay, Sam Boxleitner, Ella Cannon, Catherine Corcoran, Michael Deni, Madison Lawlor, David Ury) were working on research footage from the Eighties. That footage tracks a journey of Dr Sommerfeld (John Henry Richardson) and his students Jamie (Sara Fletcher) and Faraday (Greg Scalu) into the woods in search of a hidden bunker, with only three scribbled pages from a journal of Sommerfield’s missing colleague Heinrich Calder as their map. That bunker, hidden Lost-style beneath a hatch in the middle of nowhere, confronts the trio with a locked door and some paranormal phenomena, and opens up between them a discourse on staying or going, safety and danger, that none of them seems able to resolve.

Do Not Watch

Everyone in this film is searching – for what is just beyond the door, for missing pages, for missing tapes, for missing data files, for missing persons – and the blanks that they draw in their respective searches are always filled with more questions, more deferrals of meaning, all of which prove as compellingly addictive as they are maddening. “Even if we find Casey’s camera,” as one character puts it, “then what? Do you think it’s actually gonna end there? It’s just gonna be another goddam tape, and after that there will be another, and another. And that’s all that this is, is a wild fucking goose chase.” We too, as we piece together all these disparate media, are challenged to determine just who has edited what we see, and who has added the texts that regularly if semi-subliminally punctuate the footage with warnings not to keep watching, as though whatever has cursed, even destroyed, all the characters’ lives is coming for us too, from its hiding place deep within the film’s labyrinthine structure. 

All we need to do to prevent that happening is to stop watching, but as everyone in this film learns to their cost, once we have come so far, just quitting is easier than it sounds. As the director says to her cameraman: “I know what you’re feeling. I’m feeling it too. You’re scared. This is a story that drives people crazy, but there’s no going back. It’s just gong to eat at you.” Meanwhile, decades earlier, Professor Sommerfeld was caught on camera delivering a more nuanced conclusion: “There are two forces at play, one wants to be released while the other fights to contain it. So not only is there a force that wants to be discovered, there’s another that want to keep it hidden.” What Sommerfeld is describing here is the duality of the horror viewer, conflicted between their contradictory attitudes of fear and desire for what they have chosen to place in front of their eyes. Here, it is our curiosity that keeps looking for what has been buried or lost, and has brought us to find this footage.

Obviously the “ill-fated bunker anomaly project” and the various recorded breakouts of abysmal Lovecraftian darkness to which Janowitz’s film gives illicit expression are building on the tradition of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) and other found footage features which use their veridical format as a portal to the inescapably irrational. Yet Ryan Toyama’s screenplay also opens up a multimedia experience – where the media are very much a part of the message – to introspective scrutiny. For, like Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), Fabien Delage’s Fury of the Demon (2016) and David Amito and Michael Laicini’s Antrum: The Deadliest Movie Ever Made (2019), this posits the idea of a literal film maudit whose cursed contents, whether seen or even merely imagined, draw upon a negative void from within the viewer. This generates a reflexive anxiety within us about our own proximity to the film’s footage, as though the evils that it communicates, equally alluring and abhorrent, might also be crossing over into our world, exposing the emptiness in us all. As to whether Do Not Watch really does in the end drag us viewers into an infinite hell of our own making, let’s just say – and this is no spoiler – that the only way to find out is to ignore the title. Just don’t say that you weren’t warned.

strap: Justin Janowitz’s multi-layered found footage defies the viewer to turn away from its many mediated recordings of darkness approaching

© Anton Bitel