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Starring: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman
Review: RJ Bland
You know the drill. A woman in a movie is being victimised, harassed or has maybe seen or experienced something supernatural...and guess what? No-one takes her seriously, especially the man in her life (if there is one). Medical and legal institutions are of no help either. Nowadays, much of this is referred to as gaslighting – a term that originates from the 1944 movie Gaslight, where a man manipulates his wife to make her think she's losing her sense of reality so he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance. The hysterical woman is a theme that has persisted throughout horror cinema. From the aforementioned Gaslight to Rosemary's Baby (1968) to Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) and with a host of modern iterations including Unsane (2018) and The Invisible Man (2020). Today's social climate means that this is a trope that isn't going anywhere anytime soon either and Chloe Okuno's feature debut Watcher is evidence of that.
Julia (Maika Monroe) has relocated to Bucharest from New York after her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) is offered a job there with his marketing company. Francis' mother is Romanian and he's fluent in the language so he adapts to his new environment almost immediately. Julia on the other hand, doesn't find things quite so easy. Her husband is able to throw himself into work but as she has no job lined up, she spends her days mooching around in their generously sized apartment or wandering the streets trying to get a bearing on her surroundings. Boredom and isolation might be the least of her worries though, when she spots someone in one of the apartments opposite watching her through her oversized living room windows. And during her daytime strolls around the crumbling Bucharest streets, she starts to worry that someone might be stalking her. Is she being followed or is this all in her head? Well, the fact that there is a serial killer known as 'the spider' stalking the city, who preys on young women, doesn't help ease any suspicions she has...
Barbarian, Halloween Ends and Smile have led the charge this autumn in terms of horror on the big screen and they've all performed well, financially. Watcher may not get close to any of them in terms of box office returns due to a rather limited theatrical release, but it's a timely reminder that there is still an important place for something a bit more subtle and refined. Seamlessly merging the paranoia and anxiety of psychological fare like Polanski's Repulsion and the psycho Euro thrills of 70s giallo, it's a measured and confidently directed horror-thriller that slowly but surely ratchets up the tension. Critics may claim that there is nothing particularly new or original here. We've seen this all before. They're not entirely wrong and Watcher doesn't throw any curve balls around. But when a film is so adept at making you feel the anxiety of its lead and is so accomplished in building suspense, those gripes feel almost trivial.
Director Chloe Okuno, whose most significant work to date has been an impressive segment of the latest VHS horror franchise, carefully constructs a world of subtle dread, right from the off. The visuals are sparse, the colour palette muted and the script (which Okuno reworked from an original screenplay by Zack Ford) is brimming with understated threat. Maika Monroe, who is quietly excellent, is virtually in every scene and she's usually on her own too. Okuno wants us to experience her angst first and foremost and in this, she undoubtedly succeeds. Walking around a mini-market during the middle of the day shouldn't be a stressful experience but somehow it is! She even manages to capture that sense of discombobulation you sometimes feel in foreign climes. Watcher takes its time to work its way under your skin and there may be a contingent who become a little restless with the way the film lingers in the first hour. However the moments of horror, although generally implied, are effective enough to keep you hooked. The images of the stranger watching through a misty window in the apartment opposite are genuinely unnerving. As is the infuriating response/reaction from those around our lead who seemingly dismiss her concerns.
Of course, there is only so much slow-burn you can manage and Okuno doesn't hesitate to crank things up a gear or two as the story reaches its natural conclusion, beginning with a deeply unnerving exchange on a near empty train. The climax may not be entirely unpredictable but it's largely satisfying and to be honest, you might just be glad it's all over so you can escape the almost constant state of worry you've been put through for the previous 90 minutes.
Watcher is a superbly tense and smartly controlled horror thriller with a captivating central performance from Maika Monroe. It's doubly impressive when you consider it is the first feature from Director Chloe Okuno.
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