Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story (Review)

Some background: Marble Hornets is a slow-burning found footage horror gem created and published on YouTube, heavily inspired by the mythos of “Slenderman”, a modern-day bogeyman created as a bit of internet creepypasta and who has become a sort of crowdlore. In the series, a faceless, reality-warping figure stalks a group of student filmmakers.

The nature of the entity, its origin, motivations, needs, wants, powers, and actual modus operandi are never explained. It just is. It simply and impossibly is, and this is part of the genius of the series. The characters we’re watching are struggling to come to terms with something that can warp their senses, cloud their thoughts, and affect their memories. It is a thing without explanation, a thing beyond explanations. Part of the conceit of the series is that those affected by the Operator (as it’s referred to officially, and even a few times obliquely within the context of the show) wind up filming themselves at all times in case of things like unexplained gaps in their memory.

The first “season” of the show was based on the idea that one character had found the tapes that another character had made, and was slowly piecing together what happened and uploaded it to YouTube. Doing so in some way seems to bring him to the attention of the Operator, and from there the subsequent seasons became much more involved.

That’s the series. It ended pretty much the only way it could end, and if we were left unsatisfied with the lack of answers, I personally feel any answer that was ventured would have been even more viscerally unsatisfying. The last thing we need is some wise bearded figure explaining to us that the Operator is the soul of an infamous serial killer who was killed by his last victim, or the vanguard of an alien invasion, or a mass hallucination brought on by an experimental drug that endows its user with psychic powers but at the cost of unleashing the horrors of the id… or whatever. Nothing would suffice to explain the slender one.

The series ended, as I said, but near the end of its life cycle, there was an exciting announcement: the creators had struck a deal for a movie. What a coup! Bigger coup: creature feature veteran and World’s Creepiest Skinny Mime Doug Jones had signed on to play the Operator. Granted, who you put in a faceless mask for a figure who never appears clearly on screen for more than a second at a time might not seem like a big deal, but Jones has a peculiar genius for portraying emotion and character even when nothing of his performance is there but his posture. Trying to make a Slenderman-inspired movie without Doug Jones would just seem like a shame.

The direct-to-video-on-demand movie Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story (formerly Marble Hornets and Project Marble Hornets) is not a continuation of the series or a compressed remake but another story in the same universe. So far, so good. No sense treading over the same ground or trying to tie up the loose ends that made the story so interesting. That decision and the casting, though, are some of the few good points.

First, while no Marble Hornets story really needs a “hero” per se, our protagonist and main viewpoint character is utterly unlikable. Since the first act of the movie is squarely centered on him and we don’t really get much characterization out of the others, this is hugely off-putting. None of the characters are really very believable, either… despite the presence of what I’m sure must have been an actual budget, the writing and the acting are both somewhere between those in the Marble Hornets series and the deliberately awful student film-within-a-film that was at the center of it.

If you remember Ben Affleck’s “backseat of a Volkswagen” character in Mallrats, that’s what the male secondary character Charlie reminded of, both in how he was written and the kind of affected quality of the acting. I feel like we’re supposed to be rooting against him a little bit in the entirely by-the-books love triangle, but main character Milo is… well, it’s not just that he’s not a nice guy. He’s not even a Nice Guy™. You can’t root for him. And neither the female lead Sara nor the rival Charlie feel like real people, so you can’t root for anyone.

The Operator is done about right. The early glimpses really are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and even in the later scenes it’s possible to miss him. In fact, while I don’t want to watch the movie again, I kind of imagine even I didn’t catch him every time. I was worried that when developing the movie for a theoretically wider audience, they would have felt the need to do a lot more tight close-ups and really make sure that you see him, but they mostly avoided that.

Unfortunately, they compensated for it by hanging a lampshade on everything else.

I know a lot of Marble Hornets fandom has tried to codify the rules that the Operator follows, but the thing is, there aren’t really any rules. I know I’ve seen people suggesting it’s canon that the Operator *only* appears on recordings and camera feeds but there are definitely moments when people see him and address him without any device. I mean, there are also times when he’s not visible to someone in the moment but he shows up on a recording… but there are also times when someone sees him and he’s not on the recording that we’re watching. This is not a roleplaying game monster with stats and nice, enumerated special abilities that have a predefined scope. That’s part of what’s so horrifying about it.

The movie does what every horror movie since Scream has done, though: it tells you the rules. It takes the fanon theories of how things work in their most vulgar, banal, *boring* fashion and lays them out for you in so many words. The Operator only shows up on video. He always shows up on video, if he’s there. He can’t do anything himself, but he possesses/mind controls people. He drives people to desperation and they kill each other or themselves. The end.

One of the elements of the series, a progressive respiratory ailment known as “slender sickness” that comes over people who spend too much time under the Operator’s influence. Like every dramatic element of Marble Hornets, it’s a thing that is more inferred over the course of several episodes than concretely explained, which may be why it was ditched in favor of actual, honest-to-goodness brands that appear on the skin of people the Operator takes an interest in.

That’s not the worst idea in the world? It’s just at odds with how things were in the series, which undermines the idea that this is the same universe.

I’d say this one is only for completists… but honestly, the people who should be the built-in audience for this film are probably the people most likely to be disappointed by it. Strip away the connection to the series and it’s basically a reasonably competent found footage/haunting horror movie, a forgettable entry in a crowded field.

I will say there are at least two really great Easter eggs for the diehard fan, the first of which grounds what we’re seeing in the world of the web series and the second of which illuminates the connection between the events we’re seeing and what we’ve seen before.

Which is why it’s really unfortunate that the movie doesn’t reconcile well with the series. I can’t accept it as canon. In my head, this movie exists in the Marble Hornets movie as a low-budget, direct-to-video movie inspired by someone who heard some rumors, or even someone who watched the YouTube series as it exists within the story.