Sundance 2022: Watcher Review

Chloe Okuno is carving out quite the name for herself in horror. After writing and directing the ‘Storm Drain’ segment in last year’s V/H/S/94, Okuno returns with Watcher.  It’s a slow-burn horror about a woman tormented by the pressure of unseen eyes.

Julie (Maika Monroe) and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just landed in Romania and are weary from their travels. Francis is starting a new job in Bucharest and Julie is currently ‘reassessing’ her options after attempting an acting career back home in the States. As Francis is busy with work, Julie spends her days wandering the streets, learning Romanian, seeing the sites, and visiting local coffee shops. While Julie navigates her new environment, she becomes tormented by a silhouette in the adjacent building and believes someone is watching her.

At first, Francis is supportive and attempts to help Julie resolve the matter. However, just as the audience becomes skeptical of Julie’s paranoia, Francis does too. Glusman plays the supporting role well, moving smoothly between an understanding husband and a jerk who makes jokes at his wife’s expense.

The character of Julie (and, truly, the entire premise of the film) is one we’ve seen many times before. Monroe plays the stalked woman archetype well with a contemporary air. Where Monroe could have gone down the route as the manic woman, she maintains a dignified composure. She plays Julie with confidence so that the character doesn’t rest on what Francis thinks.

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Okuno shows a lot of restraint. Watcher a slow-burn: we aren’t sure if Julie’s fears are founded until the end. When Okuno cranks up the thrills, she turns it up to eleven. The horror in Watcher isn’t the stalker himself (played by a truly creepy Burn Gorman), it’s the lingering fear that Julie endures and the frustration she feels when no one will listen.

Shot during COVID lockdowns in Romania, Okuno uses the sparse streets to her advantage. Rather than making Julie alone in a crowded city like New York (where the script was initially set), Julie’s isolation is in her mind and surroundings. Add in the mix of modern and Soviet-era architecture, Watcher uses its location perfectly.

There are definite hints and outward displays of gender politics in Watcher, but Okuno doesn’t belabour the commentary, nor is she sanctimonious in her efforts. While Watcher doesn’t necessary tread new terrain, it builds genuine anxiety and tension. Okuno and Monroe put their own mark on the stalker genre, and deliver a creepy, slow-burn, psychological thriller.

Watcher premiered at Sundance 2022. Head here for more coverage of this year’s festival.

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