By Lynn Venhaus
An uneasy feeling of dread grows and intensifies during the creepy “Watcher,” a competent thriller whose elements, while not exactly original, come together as a believable modern-day psychological horror show.
When her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) gets a job promotion that requires a move to Romania, Julia (Maika Monroe) accompanies him on the adventure – and plans to be supportive. A former actress, she walks around the streets of Bucharest, a stranger in a strange land, and attempts to keep busy to relieve her crushing boredom.
Only she has this uneasy feeling that she is being watched. There’s a guy (Burn Gorman) peeking outside nightly from an adjacent building. Is she imaging things or is she being stalked?
Shades of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and the proverbial female protagonist doubting herself – while men wonder if it’s her imagination or other stress triggers causing the hysteria.
Those condescending, patronizing looks that women know all too well.
But we wouldn’t have 95 tension-filled minutes if everyone believed her, right? Maika Monroe, who effortlessly slips into the horror-genre as the pretty and smart blonde, toggles the fine line of sanity. We feel her nagging ‘What is wrong with me?’ just as we experience the unsettling surroundings from her point of view.
As an odd, lonely janitor named Weber, the versatile character actor Burn Gorman is able to project both sadness and strangeness at the same time. He does more with the thinly drawn part than likely was on paper.
In a stereotypical preoccupied husband role, Karl Glusman is nondescript as Francis, going through the motions of becoming increasingly perplexed, and alarmed, by Julia’s behavior.
It doesn’t help that the nightly news features a grisly neighborhood murder that may be the work of a serial killer. Nor that Julia doesn’t understand the language – she is taking lessons but feels even more lost when she’s surrounded by natives blithely chatting away. It all adds up to a few heebie-jeebies moments.
An interesting turn by Madalina Anea as the alluring, sophisticated neighbor Irina is a terrific addition to the claustrophobic setting.
Director Chloe Okuno, who wrote the story for the screen based on Zack Ford’s screenplay, gives a stylish, contemporary female spin on a classic old-school thriller, and it gets under your skin with her methodical approach.
Okuno employs a steady, deliberate pace and wisely chooses to play up the shadows and vary the lighting to make Julia’s solitary moments even more unsettling. Along with cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, they frame the angular hallways, windows, staircases, and doors to build an eerie tone.
Shrewd editing by Michael Block provides well-earned jump scares and some jolting surprises just in case you were lulled into a ‘nothing’s wrong here’ feeling. Composer Nathan Halpern capitalizes and effectively adds to the spooky vibe with his memorable score.
Costume designer Claudia Bunea has made smart choices, especially for Julia, whom we can see change through her fashion choices as her misery grows. The walls seem to close in on her, and production designer Nora Dumitrescu’s selections help that with a drab Old-World setting.
But it all rests on Monroe’s shoulders to convince us of her out-of-kilter life, trying to adapt to a foreign country but feeling more isolated and alone than ever, and she splendidly comes through.
A nominee for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, “Watcher” takes a story with familiar beats and with fresh eyes, collaborators made it their own. Above all, it delivers what it promises – and is frightening in the process.
“Watcher” is a 2022 horror-thriller directed by Chloe Okuno and starring Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman, Madalina Anea. It is rated R for some bloody violence, language and some sexual material/nudity, and runs 1 hour, 31 minutes. It is in local theaters on June 3 and available for rental on June 21. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.