February 15, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Chloe Okuno
Some language in Romanian with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Bucharest, Romania, the horror movie “Watcher” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After a young married couple moves from New York City to Bucharest, the wife begins to suspect that a man in a nearby apartment building has been stalking her.
Culture Audience: “Watcher” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that take their time to build suspense, even if the movie’s ending is entirely formulaic.
“Watcher” succeeds more often than not when it comes to immersing viewers into a tension-filled stalker mystery. The cast members’ believable performances elevate the movie’s repetitive tendencies and predictable ending. As far as horror movies go, “Watcher” is slightly better-than-average, but it’s not outstanding.
“Watcher” is the feature-film directorial debut of Chloe Okuno, who previously directed the “Storm Drain” segment for the 2021 anthology horror film “V/H/S/94.” Okuno co-wrote the “Watcher” screenplay with Zack Ford. It’s a movie with a very straightforward, easy-to-follow story—even if it recycles the over-used horror concept of a pretty young woman who thinks she’s being harassed by a “fill-in-the-blank” attacker, but she has a hard time getting anyone else to be believe her. “Watcher” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
There are no ghosts in “Watcher,” but the movie’s protagonist, whose name is Julia (played by Maika Monroe), feels haunted by her own feelings of inadequacy of being unemployed in a country where she can’t really speak the language. Julia (who’s in her late 20s) and her husband Francis (played by Karl Glusman), who’s in his early-to-mid-30s, have recently moved from New York City to Bucharest, Romania, because of his job. Francis is a businessman who works for an unnamed company. The movie never mentions any further specifics about what Francis does for a living.
Francis, who grew up in the United States, feels comfortable living in Bucharest because his mother is Romanian, so he’s fairly fluent in the language. By contrast, Julia knows only a few words in Romanian and is starting to learn the language. She feels ill-at-ease about not being able to communicate in the way that she was accustomed to when she lived in the United States. There are enough people who speak English in Romania that Julia can get by on speaking English in most places, but she still feels like an “outsider.”
The language barrier isn’t the only thing that makes Julia feels insecure. When she was living in New York, she was an aspiring actress, but things didn’t work out for her, and she’s now given up on her dream to be an actress. In Bucharest, her employment prospects are also very slim. Her immigration status is unclear, since she doesn’t have a work visa. So, for now, Julia is a homemaker with a lot of time on her hands. Luckily, Francis makes enough money to support the both of them.
Soon after moving into their high-rise Bucharest apartment, Julia and Francis get the first inkling that something might be wrong. On their first night in their new home, Julia notices that a man in the high-rise apartment building across from theirs is looking directly into their apartment and staring at her while she’s alone. Julia can only partially see the man’s face, because the room he’s in is fairly dark, and his face is somewhat obscured by shadows. The man (played by Burn Gorman), who appears to be in his 40s, is of average height and build.
It unnerves Julia that this man might be spying on her, but there’s not much she can do because they’ve just moved into the apartment and haven’t had time to install drapes or blinds on all the windows facing this other building. Julia tells Francis that they might have a neighbor who’s a voyeur, but he tells her not to jump to conclusions. He also thinks that this mystery man is probably curious to see the new residents of this apartment.
Soon after Julia and Francis have moved into the apartment, they have a small dinner party with one of Francis’ male co-workers and his wife. It’s during this dinner that Julia and Francis first hear about a serial killer who hasn’t been caught and has been targeting young women in the area. The unknown serial killer beheads the murder victims and has been nicknamed The Spider in the media. You know where this movie is going as soon as you find out that the movie has a serial killer on the loose.
Julia then meets the neighbor who lives alone in the apartment unit next door. Her name is Irina (played by Madalina Anea), who’s about five or six years older than Julia. Irina asks Julia if she can hear any noises coming from Irina’s apartment. Irina seems relieved when Julia says no. However, Julia’s first impression of how soundproof the apartment walls are might not be a correct impression.
Not long after Julia and Irina meet for the first time, another creepy incident happens to Julia. She’s watching an Audrey Hepburn film by herself at a movie theater. There are only a few other people in the room, but she notices that a man has decided to sit directly behind her, even though there are plenty of other seats that he could’ve taken.
Julia can sense that the man is staring at her, but she’s so frightened that she doesn’t turn around to get a good look at this stranger. The theater is pretty dark anyway. Instead of moving to another seat, Julia quickly leaves the theater before the end of the Hepburn movie.
And then another incident happens. But this time, it’s at a grocery store, and Julia can clearly see the man who appears to be following her. Julia is pretty sure that it’s the same man who was staring at her from the apartment building across from hers. Julia and the man don’t say anything to each other, but he noticeably follows her in the grocery aisles, keeping enough of a distance away to not invade her personal space.
Julia impulsively hides in a stock room at the grocery store, in order to get this man to lose track of where she is. However, a store employee named Sebastian (played by Stefan Iancu) sees Julia in the stock room and tells her to leave this employees-only room. He doesn’t know much English, so he doesn’t understand her explanation of why she was in the stock room.
When a terrified Julia gets home, she tells Francis about this stalking incident and asks him to go back with her to the store, so they can look at surveillance footage to prove that the man was stalking her. Francis thinks Julia might be overreacting, but he accommodates her request. They find store employee Sebastian, and Francis explains to him in Romanian what happened to Julia and why they need to look at the surveillance footage.
The footage does show the man looking at Julia in the store and appearing to follow her. Julia exclaims, “See! He’s staring at me!” Francis is still skeptical: “Maybe. Or he’s staring at the woman who’s staring at him.” Because no crimes were committed, there’s nothing more that can be done about this incident.
After Julia has this scare at the grocery store, Irina invites Julia to hang out with her in Irina’s apartment for a drink. During their conversation, Irina tells Julia a little bit about herself: She studied ballet in London, but her dream of becoming a professional ballerina was crushed when she injured her knee.
Julia mentions that she once thought that she’d be an actress, but she’s has given up on pursuing that dream. Because Julia and Irina have a similar experience of not having their dream career in the arts, it establishes a rapport between them. It seems like Julia might have found her first friend in Romania.
During this get-together, Irina’s ex-boyfriend Cristian (played by Daniel Nuta) shows up and bangs on the door. Irina doesn’t want to see him, so she tells him to go away. When he leaves, Irina shows Julia the gun that Cristian gave to her. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that gun is going to be used. “Watcher” is not subtle at all when it comes to foreshadowing.
The rest of “Watcher” is about more stalker incidents experienced by an increasingly terrified Julia, who turns to law enforcement for help but also decides to do her own investigating. Meanwhile, because many of these incidents are a “he said/she said” situation, what Julia experiences is a little hard to prove. Far from being a supportive husband, Francis questions Julia’s credibility. And eventually, he questions her mental stability.
Yes, it’s another horror movie where the woman who’s the “target” is not believed and is perceived as mentally ill by certain people. However, where “Watcher” is most effective is in creating a growing sense of dread that something terrible really is going to happen. The movie also keeps viewers guessing until the last 30 minutes if the mystery man in the apartment building is just a stalker, or if he could be the notorious Spider serial killer too.
Monroe has been in other horror movies before where she’s played the “female in peril” leading role—most notably, 2014’s critically acclaimed “It Follows.” Therefore, she’s definitely got the skills to make her Julie character in “Watcher” look authentic and relatable. Glusman’s Francis character isn’t very interesting and isn’t in the movie as much as some viewers might think he is, mainly because Francis is at his job during a lot of the moments that Julia experiences terror.
However, what makes this movie work so well (in addition to Monroe’s acting) is Gorman’s ominous performance as the stalker. (The stalker’s real name is eventually revealed in the movie.) One of the best scenes in “Watcher” is when Julia sees him looking out his window, but she can’t be entirely sure if he’s staring at her. As a test, she gives him a slow wave. And he gives a slow wave too. It’s a moment that will give chills to viewers. The rest of the movie’s cast members give serviceable performances.
The movie’s last 15 minutes stretch some bounds of credibility and could have been handled better. And the way that the serial killer is revealed is sloppily edited, because the serial killer suddenly disappears from sight in a moving subway car when a certain person finds out the killer’s identity. Despite these flaws, “Watcher” is an overall solid horror thriller that doesn’t really do anything particularly inventive, but there’s enough to the story to keep viewers in suspense.
IFC Films/IFC Midnight will release “Watcher” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on June 21, 2022. Shudder will premiere “Watcher” on August 26, 2022.