(SPOILERS) Maybe I’m just weary of this kind of movie, however proficiently put together and performed. That would be my explanation for a very mild acknowledgement of Watcher’s merits. It generally seems to have garnered plaudits as a smart, intelligent entry in the horror genre. Chloe Okuno’s feature debut is well done for what it is, but immerses itself so heavily in genre tropes that it struggles to emerge with its own distinct identity.
It’s also a problem that the clash of intents rather draws attention to itself. On the one hand, we’re presented with a spartan, lo-fi setting, the faux-realism of Julia (Maika Monroe) moving to Bucharest with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) and, not being a native language speaker, finding herself cut off and isolated in an unwelcoming urban environment. The situation beckons authenticity, far from the lush stylistic furnishings of, say, a De Palma picture.
Consequently, it isn’t intended as the kind of exercise where we, the audience are in on the joke when the familiar devices and sleights begin to pile up; we’re supposed to take them seriously, be it the first-act Chekov’s Gun – well, of course, where else would it be? And it’s actually a gun this time, so unadorned is the construction – or Julia’s decision to follow the man who watches her from across the street, whom she thinks may be a serial killer, around the streets and subways of the city.
And naturally, no one believes her or credits her concerns about the creepy guy staring into her window. Well, maybe neighbour Irina (Mãdãlina Anea), she of the Chekovian plot device. But not the police, and not Julia’s hubby, with whom relations become increasingly fraught, as he thinks she’s a fantasising loon, confabulating due to there being serial killer the Spider on the prowl. Yes, you heard that right, there’s an actual serial killer about, a further dent for the picture being taken in a serious frame of mind.
Because, in the current social-media environment, a horror movie of this ilk – and one directed by a woman – lends itself to associations it would hitherto have escaped. You know, that a woman not being believed is the very definition of #MeToo. Obviously, that bumps heads with this very set up being an unadulterated genre staple; you SHOULD believe the woman, especially when she’s proposing victimisation by the CIA-sponsored MKUltra serial-killer paradigm, horror’s laziest but most prosperous crutch.
Watcher’s simultaneously well shot and staged, with potent sound design, and replete with the requisite bland, digital dourness that drains all lustre from the proceedings; you aren’t going to want to visit Bucharest in a hurry, irrespective of the prospect of being stalked by a serial killer. This is not a poster movie for the Romanian Tourist Board, since it pretty much exemplifies the drab, grey mind’s eye image of Eastern Europe.
Ironically for a movie so infused with genre form, it has been spurned by many of those who might be expected to respond. It’s thus your classic critic’s darling that fails to elicit a similar audience response. Watcher doesn’t provide the requisite shock tactics that, say, have made The Black Phone a box-office success. It has been labelled pretentious and slow, and while the latter – it’s the very definition of slow-burn – is more than fair comment, I fail to see how the former applies. I mean, there isn’t much to it.
Admittedly, the picture’s last fifteen minutes – the point where it tips from the psychological to the tangible – are the ones that had me responding in a fashion beyond the respectful but slightly listless. There’s a particularly effective “What’s in the bag?” exchange on the subway, preceding Okuno’s concluding sequence (she adapted a story by Zack Ford). This finds Monroe taking unlikely but suitably rousing action against her stalker (none other than Burn Gorman – Slow-Burn Gorman? – who has an unfortunate face for such roles). It seems particularly unlikely, because I’m unsure how much blood she can have left in her body by this point, but there you go; Watcher wants to have its verisimilitudinous cake and eat it. To be taken seriously, until it wants you to just go with the flow.