Maika Monroe, known for starring in It Follows, captures the viewer’s attention in Chloe Okuno’s (V/H/S/94) directorial debut Watcher, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival on Friday. It’s a tale that’s uncomfortably familiar to its female audience.
While this is the feature debut of Okuno, she recently directed the (excellent) opening segment of V/H/S/94, “Storm Drain,” better known as the Raatma segment. If these two films are anything to judge by, she has the makings of one of the next great horror directors.
Watcher follows Julia (Monroe) and her recent move to Romania with her husband, Francis, played by the innocently oblivious Karl Glusman (Love, The Neon Demon). Julia immediately struggles with the language barrier, which leaves her to depend on her husband as translator to anyone who isn’t speaking English.
Jobless and cooped up in her new apartment as her husband works, Julia starts to notice that a man is watching her from an apartment window across the street, or is she the one watching him?
While Watcher treads on some familiar plot points (hey, I love Rear Window) it still feels fresh by being an incredibly intimate portrait of the unsettling fear that plagues women every day and features some unnerving and disturbing moments.
Filmed in Bucharest, Romania amid the pandemic, Watcher turns the setting into a strange and unfamiliar character through the eyes of our American protagonist by refusing to subtitle the Romanian dialogue, keeping the viewer disoriented and attached to the perspective of Julia, unless they speak Romanian of course.
This adds to the confusion and stress when Julia finds out there is a potential serial killer in her city targeting women, adding in a true crime element.
What Julia shakes off as odd occurrences soon takes hold in her mind as potential risks to her safety as a young female.
In an intro to the film, Okuno states her intentions in making the film as “an effort to try to capture some of the fear and the isolation that we often feel as women, especially when we’re just sort of moving through the world on a day-to-day basis and experiencing things that are frightening in a way that are oftentimes hard to communicate to other people.”
This is a spot-on description of Watcher, so kudos to Okuno.
Between her husband and the other men that Julia encounters, the film is littered with “harmless” microaggressions that are a constant for nearly every woman, from men’s stares lingering just a little too long to your significant other belittling you. Despite this being a frequent theme throughout the film, it never feels too heavy-handed in a way that would distract from the script or seem too propaganda-y.
Monroe commands Watcher with a performance that is not simply distressed and paranoid, but she’s constantly trying to adapt to her environment and regain as much control as she can while being in a confusing, liminal space of her life.
Her performance fits perfectly with this film and elevates it above the typical “hysterical woman is not believed” storyline, evoking Elizabeth Moss’ incredible performance in The Invisible Man.
Monroe takes what could have been a much blander film and infuses it with a modern realness that makes the film much more engaging.
Glusman also gives a great performance in this, although not nearly as sympathetic a role. He clearly cares about his wife, but cannot understand her perspective of seeing the signs of a potential stalker, nor the feeling of alienation in a foreign country. This divide clearly weighs on him, with Glusman portraying this exasperation of a man trying to excel at his job and protect his wife.
However, ultimately as this film insinuates, protecting the women around them is just a male fantasy, when at the end of the day it’s usually up to women to defend themselves.
The script is brilliant, with almost every line having subtext or foreshadowing. The film’s dialogue effortlessly flows with forceful purpose that never says too much, nor confuses the viewer. The plot is easy to grasp and doesn’t have any glaring plot holes.
The cinematography in Watcher elevates these themes with some really ominous camera work and use of minimalism and contrasting, washed-out colors. The look and imagery of the film summons forth a lot of early 2000s Japanese horror films, such as The Grudge (Ju-On) or Pulse (Kairo).
The editing aids in the cinematography as people’s reactions—particularly Julia’s—are shown before the camera sees what she’s reacting to, which leads to an uneasy effect on the viewer, prolonging their morbid curiosity.
But, most importantly, is it scary? While it probably won’t shake you to your core, this film has some genuinely upsetting and sometimes terrifying moments and images that will stick in your mind, especially the next time you see a silhouette in the window.
While steadily building tension throughout the film, the ending is surprisingly disturbing and shocking.
The score is an aspect that was mixed for me, as sometimes it added some eerie sound design that ratcheted up the tension, and other times sounded like a somewhat creepier version of a crime drama television show.
This film was a pleasant (and distressing) surprise for me, and the storyline was effectively scary. The excellent script reaches a level of relatability that is unmistakably feminine in a way that not many films succeed in being, but strive for. Watcher is a female anxiety film done right.
As a directorial debut for Okuno, it shows a promising future in the horror genre, especially after her stand-out segment in V/H/S/94.
For those who enjoy true crime, European horror and disturbing films centering on women, or just fans of Maika Monroe, this film will satisfy your cravings for a creepy flick.
Check out Okuno’s discussion of the film below.