In He Said/She Said, critics Joe and Valeska dissect a film in a back and forth email exchange. Previously, we tried on the Soska Sisters’ fashion-forward 2019 remake of Cronenberg’s classic Rabid and found that the fit wasn’t quite right. This time, we’re uncovering some small town secrets with Adam Randall’s I See You (2019) — starring Helen Hunt!
Synopsis: “Strange occurrences plague a small-town detective (Jon Tenney) and his family as he investigates the disappearance of a boy.”
Fancy meeting you here again, and so soon after our last instalment! I’m glad that we are getting back on track with these — I can’t think of another person with whom I’d rather break down a film.
Right off the bat, I’d love it if we could just take a moment to appreciate the beautiful cinematography gifted to us by Philipp Blaubach. The kinetic camerawork, paired with the haunting, almost oceanic score put together by music supervisor Will Quiney, builds and maintains an effectively menacing atmosphere from the film’s opening scenes. Whatever else we have to say about the film, it looks and sounds extraordinary.
In terms of casting, it’s nice to see Helen Hunt in a horror film, following in the footsteps of fellow 1990s/2000s rom-com linchpin Sandra Bullock, who graced Netflix’s 2018 beginner-horror sensation Bird Box. (When can we expect a Reese Witherspoon Hulu horror flick or a Kate Hudson-fronted Shudder original?) Also loved seeing True Blood alum and noted shapeshifting hottie Sam Trammell show up as Helen Hunt’s affair partner Todd (Trammell’s stubble, bedhead, and flannel shirt are completely unchanged since his tenure on HBO, so I choose to believe that this all happens in the same universe).
The film is a slow burn, weaving together equal parts frightening mystery, tense thriller, and family melodrama. We meet Helen Hunt’s Jackie Harper just after her extramarital affair has been discovered by her husband Greg (Jon Tenney) and son Connor (Judah Lewis). As the family grapples with this revelation, Greg, a detective, is also involved with an investigation into the disappearance of a missing local boy. The tensions in the household are heightened by the onset of strange occurrences, including a mysterious attack on Todd which leads to his death in the Harper home.
Thus far, I See You is a stylish horror film that luxuriates in its high production values. The film has some good character moments (including Helen Hunt’s realistic breakdown at an ad hoc gravesite) and some chilling sequences (such as an introduction to “phrogging” that features one of the most unsettling masks I’ve seen in a horror film), but to this point, it certainly isn’t reinventing any wheels.
The film’s real hook snares you about 44 minutes and eight seconds into its run-time. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
The second act kicks off with a jarring departure from the style and story of the first, introducing new characters, a brief foray into found-footage, and a temporal shift with sinister implications. The injection of a home invasion plotline upped the ante for me, as the idea of being watched by malevolent strangers is a particular fear of mine. While I can understand some people balking at the second act reveal, I really enjoyed watching the story play out from a different angle — and the film is unstinting with its additional twists.
Joe, what did you think of the structure of the film? Did the jump back in time work for you, or did it deflate the tension? (And, just between us, were you as enamoured with the gloriously trashy and gleefully queer True Blood as I was? Long live Evan Rachel Wood, Vampire Queen of Louisiana — and my heart!)
I did enjoy True Blood, though the wheels fell off that train particularly badly in the last few seasons (ironically right when I started up weekly recaps of the show). Still, it was my Sunday HBO show before Game of Thrones and I watched right until the bitter end!
Sadly, Trammell doesn’t get much more to do here than he did on True Blood, though at least he can still rock a flannel wardrobe.
But back to more pressing questions! So I had been warned/informed that I See You had a twist that was particularly divisive so I knew to anticipate something around the mid-way point that could hypothetically change my opinion. In some ways, I was fine to know it was coming, though I did enjoy the first half of the film a bit more when the possibilities of what exactly was going on seemed infinite (a glance at my notes around the time that the silverware was discovered in the laundry reads “No, but really, what the fuck is going on?!”)
With that said, while I didn’t care as much for the second half, which focuses on the story unfolding in the Harpers’ attic with Mindy (Libe Barer) and Alec (Owen Teague), it was less to do with the repetition of the film’s first half than the fact that I found Alec genuinely unpleasant and his motivations unclear. It’s only when the truth about Todd’s murder is clarified and the film begins to connect the dots back to the abduction and murder of the boys that I See You began to click back into place.
These kind of time jumps and switcheroos have become a lot more commonplace of late (I’m reviewing Apple TV’s Servant with Terry Mesnard of GaylyDreadful.com and it regularly intercuts flashbacks that aren’t always immediately noticeable, and then, of course, there’s the aforementioned Bird Box, which alternated between two timelines very unsuccessfully).
I See You manages to walk a very fine line in a way that, for me, evokes last year’s The Clovehitch Killer – reframing a familiar story from a new perspective. There, the twist was evident as soon as the shift happened (if it even was intended as a twist at all), which undercut a lot of the tension.
Considering how dangerously close to mundane things seem for a bit, I See You’s recovery, particularly the last few minutes which clarifies Alec’s backstory, is impressive. Normally, films flub the landing; I See You absolutely sticks it. In doing so, the film’s ending retroactively saves a lot of the less interesting repetitious stuff from earlier.
Valeska, how did the various changes in format work for you? Would you say that the film is scary, or simply unnerving? And did the loss of Helen Hunt affect your enjoyment in the second half?
Honestly, I was pretty much along for the entire ride on this one. I had no idea what to expect and don’t think I knew about much more than the title and Helen Hunt’s participation when you suggested we cover this. The film was a pleasant surprise and a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon while waiting for new chapters to arrive in my inbox for editing.
I’d definitely call I See You an unnerving experience, with some brief moments approaching fear. I mentioned the phrogging (I really don’t know why they spell it that way) scene earlier, when we first get a look at that horrifying mask — that sequence rattled me. I do find the concept of prolonged and secretive home invasion genuinely terrifying, but I don’t think the film’s depiction scared me per se. But that’s all right — I find tension and dread to be just as satisfying when it comes to my horror film experiences, and I certainly prefer them to jump scares or cheap shocks.
Did I miss Helen Hunt? After going years without seeing her in a film at all, I think I can handle her reduced presence in an act and a half. We did see her again at the end and delayed gratification is totally fine. I feel weird making an edging joke about Helen Hunt, so I will not.
Oh! Speaking of the cast, I also didn’t realize that the son is played by Judah Lewis, the same actor that played the kid in The Babysitter (2017) until you told me! Remember that time that you made me watch it? I almost forgave you.
Overall, I think I’m going to give I See You a solid 7/10. It looked fantastic, it creeped me out, it shook things up a bit with its narrative, and I solidly respect rom-com actors who come over to the dark side.
So, Joe — if I told you to choose a horror subgenre right now and cast a rom-com actor, which subgenre would you pick and who would play the lead? Also: is this a film that you would recommend to people less experienced with horror films? And inquiring minds are dying to know what overall score you’re going to give this film, so don’t keep us waiting (I swear that was not an edging reference).
First, when will you accept my apology for The Babysitter?! Perhaps when we’ll come around on it when its sequel eventually comes out. Also: when did you become so sexual?! I’m worried those monstrous Riverdale kids are rubbing off on you now that you’re officially a co-host of Andrew Roebuck’s podcast, Milkshakes and Mimosas. I don’t like it!
Yeah, overall this was a really pleasant surprise. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from I See You and I think it’s a shame that this release got unceremoniously dumped onto VOD without much fanfare. It’s absolutely the kind of cross-over film that folks who aren’t quite sold on horror could indulge in it. The first half, as the film dabbles in various horror subgenres, is particularly enjoyable because audiences really have no idea what kind of film they’re watching.
And honestly? This film is really well shot. As you mentioned off the top, there’s so much atmosphere and tension in the slow roaming camera, punctured by the great sound design and key moments on the soundtrack. Even that frog mask is nightmarish. It’s all really solid and makes me think we should keep an eye out for Adam Randall’s follow-up efforts, which all seem to have twisty premises, particularly Night Teeth: “A young chauffeur drives two beautiful young women to different parties. They’re not who they claim to be, and he ends up in a fight for his life.”
As for your question about a rom-com actor in a horror subgenre…I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I (truly, honestly) miss the 90s erotic thrillers. They’re tough to pull off effectively, but when well cast and well made, they’re dynamite. And I think someone like Cobie Smulders, who played Robyn on How I Met Your Mother and is wasting away in a blasé ABC drama/procedural Stumptown, would be great in the role of a femme fatale.
But back to I See You for a final score. I’m feeling a touch more generous than you because this legitimately intrigued and entertained me. I’m going with 7.5/10!
I See You is now available on VOD.