There is nothing more wholly isolating than moving to a country where you don’t speak the language. Not only is the idea of starting fresh daunting, but when the ability to communicate is taken away, it can be debilitating. Even worse is when you cannot communicate how scared you are to the surrounding people, or when those people don’t take the fear seriously. Such are the struggles of Julia (Maika Monroe) in Watcher.
Julia has uprooted from the familiar to the foreign-but-beautiful city of Bucharest with her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), for his new job. As an actress, she’s put aside her career for the move and spends frequent days alone in her apartment while Francis takes on long hours at the firm.
Enter, The Spider. While walking the streets at night, Julia and Francis come across a crime scene with authorities and a body. They later find out that a woman has been brutally killed – nearly decapitated – by a serial killer named The Spider. For any woman who lives alone or spends time alone, the thought of a roaming serial killer in her neighborhood is quite literally a nightmare scenario. Things take a turn for the worst when Julia gets the sensation that she is being watched while she’s at home.
Director Chloe Okuno (known for the “Storm Drain” of V/H/S/94) is an expert at building the suspense, dread, and paranoia that seeps into Julia’s life. Though she takes control of her agency, actively pushing to call the police and investigate the building across the street, the police and Francis both are not convinced of her concerns. They write her off as a hysterical woman and converse in Romanian knowing she does not understand the language.
Glusman’s Francis seems loving initially, but quickly his presence is soured by his lack of belief in his wife’s genuine fears, culminating in a moment when he even crudely jokes about it to his co-workers in front of her. But Julia is no idle victim. When confronted by the eerie watcher across the street (Burn Gorman with a scary demeanor but less scary Romanian accent) she trusts her instincts.
Zack Ford‘s script highlights the conversations had between women who are the target of stalking or obsessions and the people around them that won’t take their fears seriously. Her only ally is her neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), who speaks English and happily keeps her company, but even Irina is not so sure that Julia’s fears are founded. It’s Julia’s word against a man who seems to just be the target of an American woman’s antics.
As the suspense grows and as more coincidences fall into place, Okuno builds on the terror that Julia feels. Despite the vastness of her apartment, she is claustrophobically trapped. The floor-to-ceiling windows turn her home into a Petri dish for her stalker, in a sort of reverse Rear Window situation. Julia is the embodiment of a genuine fear that women have and although it reaches an extreme in the movie, that fear should not be discounted.
Watcher is a cautionary tale against those who might write off a woman’s instincts as irrational or overly-sensitive. It’s an “I told you so” to doubters and gaslighters who write off victims’ accounts as dramatic. Okuno is certainly not showing us anything we haven’t seen before, indeed these stories are all too familiar, unfortunately. But the skill is not making the horror indulgent. Julia’s dread is something we feel distinctly. Monroe, someone familiar with the horror genre, is perfect as our hero who is equal parts determined and terrified. Okuno and Ford paint a vignette of true nightmares in Watcher, and it is hard to take our eyes off of it until it reaches its final conclusion.
Watcher premiered at Sundance this week and is seeking distribution.