Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: Watcher ★★★

Chloe Okuno’s Watcher joins the impressive host of female-directed horror making its debut at Sundance this year with this grisly voyeuristic thriller hitting most of the right, albeit familiar notes. Maika Monroe and Karl Glusman lead this latest slice of genre entertainment from Okuno who has previously given us the excellent V/H/S/94 anthology segment Storm Drain (“Hail Raatma!”)

Penned by Zack Ford, Watcher centres on a young couple, Julia (Monroe) and Francis (Glusman) relocating to Romania for the latter’s work. Isolated, unable to speak the language, Julia finds her days dominated by the fear that she is being watched by a neighbour opposite her building – a brutal spat of killings targeting young women from an assailant dubbed The Spider only serves to fuel this panic. Struggling to find the support she craves from Francis, Julia attempts to discover if her voyeuristic neighbour and The Spider are connecting, whilst avoiding the trappings of becoming another victim.

A sense of alienation is crafted from Julia’s earliest moments in Romania, with Francis delving into a jovial discussion with a taxi driver and later their new landlady – Julia regularly asking what other characters are saying. The bustling noise and lights of the city may have been home to her partner but the city is very new to Julia who spends her aimless days at coffee shops and gazing into neighbour’s apartments. As the couple settle into their apartment, cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen captures the expansive, surprisingly open surroundings within the flat – featuring imposing windows exposing it to countless of homes opposite – planting the seed of Julia as a potential victim in the spider’s web.

With this open and exposed setting, Okuno gradually brings in small discomforts to craft a sense of unease: cries from the neighbouring flat, presences that linger and stare a little too long, discussions about the brutal behaviour of The Spider, and increasing frustration due to language barriers. These little titbits soon build to increasingly tense sequences such as Julia watching Audrey Hepburn terrorised in Charade at the cinema whilst a presence in the predominantly empty theatre sits directly behind her edging closer. A visit to the grocery store sees Julia apparently stalked down the aisles by the same presence from the cinema, escalating the sense of urgency and panic. These scenes show little of Julia’s assailant’s face – often blurred by distance or shot in a way which obscures it – adding to the general sense of unsettling mystery. Unsurprisingly the more we are exposed to this, the less horrifying events become.

Monroe is an absorbing presence, conveying Julia’s complex emotional background which dances between full conviction in the events surrounding her to cautious self-doubt. The ripple effects on Julia’s relationship feel like a natural narrative direction for a film of this mould, but Monroe and Glusman’s natural charisma ensure this does not feel trite. Monroe captures the varying dimensions of Julia’s isolation – her physical isolation of spending her days alone in a foreign city to the psychological trauma of being isolated in her belief that she is being targeted as the next victim – her obsession ironically turning her into the one fervently watching her neigbours.

Okuno packs some grisly horror imagery into the feature – particularly its gory final moments – and there is a natural intrigue in the narrative’s familiar beats. This familiarity however is at the detriment of Watcher as it fails to take the established narrative of the woman convinced she’s being touted as a killer’s next victim down any fresh routes. There’s nothing hugely wrong with Watcher sticking to these expected tracks – Okuno’s direction is effectively tense whilst Ford’s narrative has all the attributes which make the film naturally watchable – but this could have been a far more interesting and original piece if a little more imagination was put into the mix.

Watcher plays as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Find out more details here.