Movies: Watcher (2022)

As should be apparent from some of my other posts and videos, I’m a big fan of slow-burn, psychological horror, so when I started hearing that this particular film—which premiered at Sundance in January of this year and drew a bit of buzz—had arrived on Shudder, I brewed myself a cup of peppermint tea and settled in to watch Watcher (sorry).

This is the feature-length debut of writer/director Chloe Okuno, whose best-known previous credit was directing the “Storm Drain” segment of the 2021 horror anthology film V/H/S/94. Working from a screenplay by Zack Ford (who also produced), Okuno seems to have adapted the story to her own vision, said vision being steeped in foreboding homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby, and Repulsion. Though Watcher doesn’t do anything new plot-wise, being a very simple, stalker/thriller type movie, the execution of it is elegant, classic, and pretty damn great, and I got really into it; the acting performances are subtle and fantastic, the cinematography amps up the unsettling vibe without being overt or showy, and I absolutely love the use of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier as a musical motif.

One caveat, though; when I say this movie is a slow-burn, I mean it; it’s very slowly paced. I didn’t mind, and it actually didn’t seem slow to me, because every interaction, event, and conversation, no matter how innocuous it seemed on the surface, was laden with ominous overtones. But one criticism I saw from some corners was that some viewers thought it was TOO slow and just ended up being boring. I really don’t agree, but your mileage may vary. Just putting that out there.

Horror darling Maika Monroe (best known for her 2014 breakout role in It Follows) plays Julia, a young former actress who is married to a marketing executive named Francis (played by Karl Glusman, who I recognized from The Neon Demon). Francis has recently received a promotion, and he and Julia move to Bucharest, Romania from New York City. Francis’s mother was Romanian, and he’s fluent in the language, though Julia doesn’t speak a word of it. It’s implied that Julia is perhaps somewhat adrift in life; she realized that acting “wasn’t for her,” but she seems unsure of what exactly she’s going to do now. Moving to Bucharest to support her husband just sort of seemed like the thing to do, since she didn’t have anything else in particular going on.

The couple rent a nice apartment, and Francis proceeds to work long hours, trying to justify the company’s faith in him, and spends evenings schmoozing with clients, leaving Julia alone much of the time. Though she is trying to learn Romanian, there’s still a huge language barrier; when Francis is around, he can translate for her, but she struggles with the simplest tasks when she’s by herself: just ordering coffee or visiting a museum becomes difficult, peppered with landmines of misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, Julia begins to feel isolated, and Chloe Okuno’s decision not to close-caption the Romanian conversations puts us in the same boat as the protagonist (unless we also speak Romanian, of course), feeling detached and excluded, and hovering around the fringes of other people’s lives.

Not long into their stay, Julia notices the silhouette of a man at the window of an apartment across the way. He seems to be sitting there every night, staring into her window, though she can’t tell exactly what he’s looking at, since he’s always in shadow. His pervasive presence makes her feel on edge, and these emotions are only exacerbated when a woman in a nearby apartment building is nearly beheaded. Through a conversation with Francis’s workmates, it’s revealed that a serial killer known as The Spider has been on the loose for quite a while, and has already killed several other women.

As Julia wanders somewhat aimlessly around the city, trying to familiarize herself with her new home, she starts to get the distinct feeling that she’s being followed, though at first she isn’t really sure if she’s simply imagining things because of the stress of culture shock and the possibility of a prowling killer. She ducks into a movie theater one afternoon, surreptitiously checking out the other patrons, and panics when a man sits directly behind her, even though the theater is almost empty (goddammit, I hate when people do that). She goes to a grocery store next, and is certain the same man followed her there, and is watching her from around the aisles. She flees through the back of the store, but she’s now convinced that not only is this creep following her around for some reason, but that he’s the same guy who sits in the window and watches her from his apartment.

Her husband, who is almost never at home, is initially supportive, going with her to the grocery store and asking to look at the CCTV footage so he can see what she’s so upset about. She tries to explain what he’s seeing, but you can tell that he’s starting to doubt her, that he’s beginning to think she’s making something out of nothing.

One night, after spending an evening drinking wine with her neighbor and new friend Irina, she comes home to see the man watching her from his window again. Filled with drunken courage and bolstered by Irina’s charmingly “fuck off” attitude toward her ex-boyfriend, Julia decides to see if this guy is really looking at her after all. She waves to him.

Nothing happens at first, and she wordlessly chastises herself for her paranoia, but then the guy waves back. Julia is freaked and persuades Francis to call the police.

From there, it’s a pretty classic gaslighting scenario: Julia is adamant that this guy has nefarious intentions, but Francis and the police just think she’s blowing things out of proportion. The man hasn’t actually DONE anything he can be charged for, after all, and Julia has been under a lot of stress lately. Maybe she’s been misreading some signals, since she doesn’t really understand the culture yet?

Frustrated, Julia decides to follow the man herself, if only to make sure that the guy in the window and the guy from the grocery store are the same person; this has the unfortunate result of making her look even more delusional, as though she’s the stalker and the hapless guy her victim.

As I said, the story isn’t all that original and has been done in many different variations before, but there’s definitely something to be said for taking things back to basics and just making a solid, tension-filled thriller that isn’t ostentatious at all, but keeps you invested and guessing where it’s going next while staying portentously subdued and grounded in reality. Chloe Okuno’s assured direction aligns your perspective with Julia’s right from the start, so all the way through, you feel her anguish, her self-doubt, and her simmering resentment at not being believed or having her concerns taken seriously.

Like most women, I’ve been in the same position as Julia many times, where you’re pretty sure a strange dude is up to something sketchy and possibly potentially dangerous, but when you try to tell someone else about it, it sounds kind of lame and nothing to worry about, and then you start thinking maybe you’re overreacting. It’s not a good feeling, and this movie really nailed what that’s like, with the added alienation factor of being in an unfamiliar country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language. Maybe this movie hits different if you’re a woman, I don’t know, but a lot of what she went through resonated with me big time. One smaller thing that happens in the movie a couple of times that made me feel like crying was when Francis and his colleagues insisted on speaking Romanian in front of her most of the time (even though they could all speak English), almost as though they were deliberately trying to isolate her further, and later on in the movie when they do it to make a really tasteless joke at her expense, it made me boil with rage. I think just the betrayal of that upset me the most; here’s a person who’s supposed to support you and have your back, but he seems to be trying to sideline her and her anxieties at every turn.

In short, if you have Shudder and are in the mood for a classic, no-frills, Hitchcockian-style thriller, Watcher is a dependably entertaining watch; it’s restrained and controlled, with little violence or shocks until the end, but it’s a great build-up of dread throughout the entire 90-minute runtime, and Maika Monroe really sells the heightening unease of the narrative while keeping her performance admirably low-key. One of the better thrillers I’ve seen in a long while, and I’m looking forward to Chloe Okuno’s next project (which I’ve heard is going to be based on the true case of Rodney Alcala, the Dating Game Killer).

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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