Featuring great performances, a killer look and soundtrack, and ample tension, horror fans should absolutely take notice of “Watcher”.
Now streaming on Shudder, Watcher is one of the most refreshing horror/thriller movies to come out in quite some time.
IMDb lists the film’s synopsis as follows:
A young American woman moves with her husband to Bucharest and begins to suspect that a stranger who watches her from the apartment building across the street may be a local serial killer decapitating women.
It’s a basic setup, one that would be the go-to for many an indie filmmaker with a small budget and a couple of cameras. And yet, Watcher elevates the concept to dizzying heights, partially by putting our heroine in an unfamiliar country. This is one movie where the sum is greater than the individual parts.
The whole “stranger in a strange land” premise is simple but effective. After all, who can’t relate to being stuck in a new situation or environment, potentially even a dangerous one, with very few resources to fall back on?
Watcher plays that conceit up to its full potential.
In a bold directorial decision, there are no subtitles to be found within the movie.
When Romanian is being spoken (which is often), the audience, like our main character, has no idea what is being said. She must continually ask, “What did he say?” and trust that the people translating are telling her the truth (hint…they’re sometimes not).
It’s hard to believe that Watcher is director Chloe Okuno’s feature film debut.
Yes, she co-directed V/H/S/94, but Watcher sees her operating on a whole other level, delivering a stellar film that isn’t afraid to carve out its own identity while neatly cribbing some of the best concepts from Hitchcock and Kubrick.
However, while it may wear its influences on its sleeve, Watcher is very much an homage instead of a rip-off. And a perfectly paced and staged homage at that.
From the camera angles to the color palette and the use of negative space to the intimate long takes, Watcher is a case study of classic filmmaking. You’ve seen some of these stylistic choices before. But that’s not a bad thing. Every choice was deliberately made, resulting in a truly unsettling cinematic experience.
For such a slow-burn film, it also generates palpable tension, slowly building until it’s at a fever pitch.
Sound is also used to great effect; scenes are subtly quiet until something ominous happens, and the associated noise is as jarring as the imagery on the screen.
Bucharest is very nearly a character itself. We only get snippets of the city during the day. The rest of the time, it’s either raining, nighttime, or both. Between the language barrier, the darkness, and the murderer stalking the city, Watcher practically exudes oppressiveness.
Kudos to cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen (also his feature film debut) for making the location beautiful and terrifying in equal measure.
All of this is anchored by a truly knockout performance by Maika Monroe as Julie.
A former actress, Julie has moved with her Romanian-American husband to Bucharest, where he works with an advertising firm. Julie is our proxy to this foreign land, as confused by her surroundings as we are. She doesn’t speak the language, her husband is gone for hours or days at a time, and she has nobody to fall back on.
It’s as depressing and lonely a situation as one can imagine. But that’s only the beginning. Julie gets put through the emotional wringer throughout nearly the entire runtime of Watcher.
Maika tackles each hurdle with style, effortlessly selling every emotion and mannerism.
Her fragile emotional state is one of the cornerstones of the movie. Her husband’s casual disbelief of her growing concerns is absolutely the biggest slap in the face, and the way Maika sells Julie’s mounting feelings of betrayal is nothing short of astonishing.
Being so isolated and unfamiliar has her on her heels, and much of what transpires around her is open to interpretation.
Is she overreacting to the situations occurring in her daily life, or are her instincts correct? Why does she insist on returning to her window to see if she is still being watched? Is it out of boredom? Idle curiosity? Something deeper? Some of these answers are provided, while others are left to the audience to decide.
Since I like a little ambiguity in my thrillers, I was quite pleased with this approach.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Burn Gorman is effectively creepy as Julie’s strange neighbor, who watches her from his window across the way, and who may or may not be following her around the city.
Burn is a fantastic character actor with unbelievable range. He has played everything from a sadistic soldier in Game of Thrones to a wacky scientist in Pacific Rim. Watcher has him nearly mute, but he easily conveys eeriness, allowing subtle facial expressions and an awkward gait to do the talking.
The rest of the cast throw themselves into their roles admirably. Julie’s husband straddles the line between loving and unconsciously condescending, while her vivacious next-door neighbor Irina takes life the horns and doesn’t slow down for anything (or anyone). Everyone performs their parts well, even the bit players that only show up for a scene or two.
It must be said that this is not your typical “mystery-focused” psychological thriller, with red herrings and switcheroo’s being bandied about.
Watcher is, by design, very straightforward. Is the gun in her neighbor’s drawer, the one we get just the briefest of glimpses of, going to factor in somehow? The odds are good. Will Julie’s skills as an actress come into play? They just might.
In nearly any other film, such a singular focus would be a detriment. But here it works.
Again, this is a modern movie told in a classic style. It’s no coincidence that Julie visits a local theater one day where Charade is playing, a film that has been described as “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made.” The references are lovingly baked into the finished product.
On the technical side of the coin, there are only good things to report.
As mentioned earlier, the cinematography is top-notch. Both costuming and the location scouts absolutely nailed it (Watcher was initially going to take place in New York, removing the tension of being in a foreign land, and I’m glad they didn’t go that route). The soundtrack by Nathan Halpern is an exercise in beautiful restraint. Everything gels and coalesces to form an instant classic.
Honestly, I cannot praise this film enough.
Everyone involved deserves all the raves and kudos they can possibly receive. Maika Monroe was a breath of fresh air in both IT FOLLOWS and THE GUEST and manages to top both of those performances in WATCHER.
While fans of slow-burn films that are heavy on the psychological terror scale will get the most mileage out of Watcher, it should be on every horror aficionado’s radar.