One of the highlights of last year’s horror anthology V/H/S/94 was director Chloe Okuno’s creature-feature segment “Storm Drain.” Now making her feature-length debut, Okuno brings us the psychological thriller Watcher, about Julia (Maika Monroe), an American woman who has recently given up her acting career and relocated to Bucharest, Romania, with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman, from Greyhound) for his work. One of his parents is Romanian, so he speaks the language, but she is in the early stages of learning and feels horribly out of place and alone in this foreign land, especially since she spends the vast majority of her days on her own.
One night, Julia finds herself people-watching outside the floor-to-ceiling windows in their apartment when she spots someone standing and staring out their own window across the street. She can’t see this person’s face, but to her, it feels like he’s staring right at her. Almost convincing herself she’s overreacting, she waves to the motionless figure, and sure enough, he waves back. Over the next couple of days, she spots someone whom she believes is following her into a movie theater and the grocery store, and she convinces herself that this mysterious neighbor is the same man stalking her. Making matters worse, there is a serial killer (nicknamed The Spider) killing women in the city, the most recent attack being very close to where the couple lives.
As many thrillers of this nature do, Watcher allows for the possibility that Julia is simply letting her mind get away from her, growing increasingly paranoid as a manifestation of her empty life in an unfamiliar city. She enlists the help of her husband, but even he is worried that this is more about her not adjusting to her new surroundings—although he does contact the police, who go to visit the suspect across the street (an encounter we hear about, but Okuno wisely doesn’t show us). At a certain point, it is revealed that the neighbor in question is the rather timid Weber (Burn Gorman, The Dark Night, The Expanse), who simply lives a quiet life in the apartment he shares with his elderly father. But when you spot Burn Gorman in a movie, you know you can’t let your guard down.
Watcher is a terrific and highly effective, albeit low-grade, suspense film. Monroe is one of the reigning queens of this brand of anxious, neurotic character who also has the guts to fight back against (or at least look into) her suspicions. Cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen does a masterful job working with light and shadow within Julia’s apartment to illustrate how exposed, vulnerable and trapped she feels in those confines. I especially liked the scenes Monroe shares with her next-door neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), a dancer with a strong personality who takes Julia under her wing and at least gives her someone to talk to and spend time with. There is something achingly clean and streamlined about the look of Watcher, and this contrasts beautifully with some of the nastier elements that come late in the story.
There are deeper themes at play here as well, especially the all-too familiar one about believing women and not dismissing them when they feel at risk. What makes Julia’s plight worse is how often she begins to doubt her own intuition and survival instinct. The film is frequently unnerving more than outright scary, and that’s a far more unsettling experience in the long run. Watcher is a worthy feature debut from Okuno, and I’m eager to see where she takes us next, since she’s clearly interested in exploring all manner of horror in her filmmaking.
Watcher is now in select theaters.
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