“I should tell more people to go fuck themselves.”
WATCHER is a gorgeous film of delicate tension. It’s an icy and elegant study of the constant state of fear that many women live in every day. How it’s so bad that you can’t even feel safe in your own home because men will stalk you and stare at you through your windows and when you walk outside, how you can feel eyes on you constantly. The worst part, aside from occasionally being raped and murdered, is that even when you tell someone, you frequently aren’t believed. That’s the moment when suddenly the old beliefs about female hysteria start being taken more seriously than your own perception of the world. The irony is that women are set up and trained by society to be hypervigilant and constantly on their guard, but that no one takes that vigilance or us seriously.
WATCHER stars Maika Monroe (It Follows, The Guest) as Julia, Karl Glusman (Neon Demon, Love) as Francis, Burn Gorman (“Game of Thrones”, Crimson Peak) as Watcher/Weber, and Madalina Anea (Exodus To Shanghai) as Irina. It is written by Zack Fox (Scar) and Chloe Okuno (“Storm Drain” from V/H/S/94, Slut). Chloe Okuno directed the film perfectly with precision and an eye to the classic horror films of women in peril. Danish cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, who previously worked with Okuno on her short Slut, which you should definitely also watch, uses the camera with subtlety and a gentle exactitude as the camera glides from scene to scene. The composition of many shots emphasizes the loneliness and fright that Julia faces and her increasing isolation as she’s told that it’s all in her head. There are not that many different lighting schemes, instead, the power of the camera is used to alienate Julia from almost everything in her life, except for her belief in herself. Okuno and the designers; production, set, and art has all worked together to create a believable and frightening world.
I have to also note that the score for the film is wonderful. Composer Nathan Halpern has given us a lush and haunting counterpoint to the film on the screen. The seemingly simple steps of the main theme recall the romanticism of the past and highlight the sadness within Julia. The notes traded between the keyboard and the woodwind seem to mourn a loss. It sticks to your mind.
From the first shot, Maika Monroe, an especially gifted actress, looks different from her most well-known roles in genre films, It Follows and The Guest. She has differentiated the character of Julia from the roles that she has performed before and the separation of this characterization is so strong that she looks different too. It has been mentioned that WATCHER is influenced by Rosemary’s Baby and it’s true. It’s even in Monroe’s performance which is calibrated just as finely as the cinematography. There are traces of the same charming innocence, ethereal calm, and need to please others that existed in Mia Farrow’s performance as Rosemary Woodhouse.
Monroe charts a slightly different path because she steps out of the usual placid footsteps of the classic horror heroines as the film continues. Additionally, the conscious choice to not translate the Romanian speech of most of the characters in the film is a genius choice on the part of Okuno. It makes you feel some of the same solitude and unmooring that Julia feels. It’s incredible to realize how alone you are when everyone is talking and you can’t understand what’s being said. It’s a special kind of discomfort that can blossom into fear.
Burn Gorman has such a great face. He’s an impeccable yet vulnerable force as Weber. While you, like Julia, might suspect him of awful things, you still can’t help but feel his sadness and disappointments. The film is even better for this complex performance. You won’t get any of the classic scene chomping of previous suspicious characters. Like the film itself, it’s much more subtle and morally ambiguous than normal.
Karl Glusman too has a vulnerability that works for the film. He’s the husband who, like many men, doesn’t take his wife seriously and sees her as a beautiful ornament. He does not consider her his equal, but his loving gestures hide his sexism and weakness of character. As an actor, he’s done a very good job of creating a very normal sort of man that you see all too often. Glusman doesn’t make it as overt as some actors have in the past. Is it that he’s that kind of guy or is it that he just wants to fit in? It suggests the unsettling question of whether or not men even realize what they are doing to the women that they claim to love.
It’s obvious that Okuno has used her extensive knowledge of genre films to inform her creation of WATCHER. You can see and feel her love of genre and filmmaking all over the film. She does put her stamp all over her work though. There are two particular references that I really enjoyed in the film, Okuno deconstructs the cat scare. Instead of just doing the de rigueur gag, she inverts it. She also pulls off a consummate example of the Lewton Bus at one point and it got me. She uses genre tropes and setups to her advantage and plays with them in a very enjoyable way. I have to give a shout-out to the scene when we finally get to see Elvis the Cat. The way the cat is filmed is just fantastic. You can almost feel the silky fur of the cat with your eyes. It’s a really satisfying moment for cat and cinematography fans. One thing that I really admire in female creators right now is how they are taking the standards in genre and using them to upset the applecart of audience expectations and to advance their storytelling in different ways. They use them because they are highly skilled and inventive creators, not because they don’t have anything to say. It’s that they are so well versed in the language of cinema and genre that they can use standards in new and exciting ways. By the way, no one complains when a male director uses actual homages or references to cinema of the past.
WATCHER is the highly skilled creation of a director who wants to use the tools of the genre to explore the very real fears of women everywhere. The danger of men who won’t listen or who don’t respect women’s boundaries is diaphanous as their motives. The terror in the film is all the more real for the contempt that people have for the people experiencing it. Some may ask, “is it horror”? For women, yes it is. It’s an all too real horror that they are expected to live with and navigate daily. It’s not Leatherface chasing you through the tall grass, it’s your neighbor who decides they have the right to do what they want with you without ever having asked. It’s not The Shape refusing to die, it’s your loved ones and authority figures refusing to believe you when you tell them that you feel threatened.
It’s telling you that women live in a horror movie for most of their lives.
WATCHER had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It has been picked up for distribution by IFC Midnight.