Watcher (2022)

When Julia moves with her husband to Bucharest, she notices a stranger always watching her from the building across the street. She begins to suspect this same stranger is following her and is the serial killer who has been terrorising the city and preying on women after dark.

Written and directed by Chloe Okuno, Watcher is a tightly-wound, highly effective chiller; a truly modern horror that takes a simple premise - and universal, relatable anxieties - and expertly spins it into a web of paranoia and quiet terror. From the outset, Julia (Maika Monroe) is rendered an outsider. In the taxi from the airport, her half-Romanian husband Francis (Karl Glusman) and the driver converse in Romanian, unintentionally excluding her. When they get settled in their new flat, she finds herself alone much of the time. Her husband works long hours, she doesn’t yet have a job (we learn she left behind a promising acting career in the States), she doesn’t know anyone in the city. She begins to feel adrift and listless, further isolated by the language barrier and certain cultural differences. As there are no subtitles, the viewer gains some insight into how lost and excluded she feels: she can’t understand, can’t partake, and at various times she must ask people, including her husband and his colleagues, to please speak in English. Julia gradually notices someone in the building opposite hers who seems to be always looking in at her from across the street, always watching her. This is apparently confirmed in a creepy moment when she, bolstered by a couple of stiff drinks and new friendship with her neighbour Irina, waves at the figure. The figure waves back. It feels strangely threatening. Every time she looks out her window, the figure is there, looking right back at her. To add to her mounting unease, the news is full of stories of a serial killer, dubbed The Spider, who is stalking and decapitating women around the city.

Okuno masterfully conjures and sustains an atmosphere of dread and paranoia, with her creepy, voyeuristic direction enhanced by Benjamin Kirk Nielsen’s cinematography, which utilises wide angles and POV shots to suggest Julia is always being observed and followed. This subjective approach to telling the story is further highlighted in the ways in which Okuna always frames Julia to draw our eyes to her. We’re constantly made aware of our own gazing at her. We see her through windows as she goes about her day, we follow her down streets and through the bustling city. Her apartment, with the huge windows through which we look in at her, and indeed the city and the spaces she occupies within it, are all rendered sinister and threatening. Several moments - including the scenes in the cinema, the grocery shop, and most notably the taut encounter in the subway - when Julia’s increasing panic and feelings of utter helplessness result in a fever pitch of tension. As a director, Okuno demonstrates she knows very well that terror comes from the threat of what might happen, the anticipation of it.

While Okuno’s screenplay may tell a familiar story – an outsider adjusting to a new environment, feeling isolated, helpless, paranoid – it does so in a very compelling way, toying with perception and perspective, and all the while fuelling ambiguity and prompting the viewer to second guess and doubt what they see - and what Julia sees (or thinks she sees). It also feels strikingly relevant, offering up social commentary on the very real fear experienced by women on a too regular basis and how these fears are undermined, dismissed, even normalised. Coming in the wake of #metoo and #timesup Watcher feels all the more powerful. Here we have a woman who claims she is being stalked by a stranger, being told again and again by her husband and the police that she must be mistaken, undermined to the point that she doubts herself and even feels she shouldn't trust her own instincts. Her husband, who thinks she is making too big a deal of everything, further belittles her in a particularly uncomfortable scene at a drinks reception his work has arranged. The main topic of conversation is the serial killer. Julia, having gradually picked up a few words of Romanian, realises her husband has made a joke at her expense regarding her claims that the killer is stalking her. His male colleagues laugh, but one silent female colleague appears to implicitly sympathise with Julia's plight. 

Maika Monroe brilliantly conveys Julia’s mounting panic. Initially she doubts herself, thinking (being told by everyone) she must be imagining it, but several events occur that convince her she is not imagining things. As the alienated protagonist, Monroe offers a grounded, beautifully understated and quietly powerful performance that renders her sympathetic and relatable. 

Watcher is a real edge-of-the-seat creeper that not only offers chills, but has something to say about our society, victim blaming, and the fear for their own safety many women experience - and the societal normalisation of this fear. 

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