August 25, 2022

Paranoid Thriller “Watcher” is a Strong Directorial Debut (Review)

Being a stranger in a strange land is far from an ideal situation. Not having the personal connections you rely on at home, combined with an irreversible sense of loneliness, is more terrifying than what you’ll find in several horror movies.

Watcher, the debut feature from director Chloe Okuno, takes that feeling and dials it up to eleven. Maika Monroe plays Julia, an American, who moves to Bucharest after her husband Francis (Devs’ Karl Glusman) accepts a job there. Due to his upbringing, Francis is fluent in Romanian, but Julia is not, further isolating her in her new home, which she’s already uncomfortable in. To make matters worse, a man who lives across the street seems to be watching her, and Julia begins to theorize that he is the serial killer, called “the Spider” by the local media, who has been decapitating Romanian women.

What follows is a paranoid thriller filled with unenviable dread and a strong sense of raw fear. It’s rare that a film is so effective that it makes me paranoid, even though I’m in the safety of my own house and my nerves are completely unfounded. Watcher is effective in that regard — and perhaps watching it late at night in total darkness wasn’t the best choice. Still, it only proves its potency as a thriller, and pays off the hard work of those behind and in front of the camera.

While the parallels between It Follows, the film which Monroe is best-known for, are apparent, Watcher firmly grounds itself in reality while simultaneously hinting that something else may be afoot. Like the best of the genre, we’re not sure what is truly real, and what’s a part of Julia’s imagination. Certain actions could be misconstrued by our lead, and as we’re seeing it all from her perspective we’re left without an objective frame of reference. For most of the film, we’re left to draw our own conclusions, which only adds to the paranoia.

The man suspected by Julia is Daniel Weber, played by Game of Thrones’ Burn Gorman. I respect and admire the casting of Gorman because he is naturally intimidating, and is able to carry himself in a way that makes it easy for the film to play into his menacing physicality. I’ve noticed that Gorman has been type-cast as either potentially psychopathic characters or quirky weirdos, and his character in Watcher is definitely a bit of both. He is able to play creepy like not many actors can, and Watcher makes sure to fully utilize that ability.

The only thing Watcher doesn’t nail is a surprising ending. It’s certainly shocking, and the climax begins unexpectedly, but afterward it proceeds like a completely different film, unconcerned with building any more of the anxious excitement it delighted in establishing earlier.

But while some conclusions could make or break a movie, that’s not the case with Watcher. It feels chillingly authentic, which only makes it scarier. Those who enjoy suspense and the constant feeling of being on the edge of your seat will appreciate Watcher, which looks to be flying under the radar for most folks. I wouldn’t sleep on it.

Watcher premieres on Shudder August 26.

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