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Watcher: SXSW Film Review

Watcher doesn’t add anything new to the “stalker” subgenre but still satisfies thanks to a sustained sense of suspense throughout and Maika Monroe’s powerful performance.

Oftentimes, film festivals are most associated with Oscar hopefuls, whether they be baity biopics, sentimental sob stories, or anything in between. However, an equally essential part of film festival culture is the premiere of gloriously gonzo genre flicks, such as Hereditary (from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival), A Quiet Place (a SXSW 2018 debut), or even last year’s Last Night in Soho (which was first shown at the Venice Film Festival). Amidst all the more conventional cinematic anecdotes on display, genre filmmakers continually find a space for themselves at fests and give their subversive stories a brilliantly buzzy launch that instantly captures cinephiles’ attention.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival was no exception, showing off the riveting Rebecca Hall-led Resurrection, Nikyatu Jusu’s Grand Jury Prize award-winning Nanny, and Mimi Cave’s devilishly delectable Fresh, but Chloe Okuno’s feature film directorial debut Watcher more than managed to stand out from the pack and leave a massive impression on moviegoers, delivering traditionally terrifying horror thrills with just enough twists and turns here or there (thanks to Zach Ford and Okuno’s scintillating screenplay) to make for a memorable addition to the stacked “paranoid thriller” subgenre. Powered by a persuasive lead performance from scream queen Maika Monroe (It Follows, The Guest), Watcher isn’t one horror fans will want to miss – and it’s set to stun further following a showing at the 2022 South by Southwest film festival.

The film follows an American woman named Julia (Monroe), as she uproots her life to accompany her husband Francis (Karl Glusman, of Nocturnal Animals and The Neon Demon) to Budapest for his high pressure job. The two are still in the throes of passion of the honeymoon phase of their young marriage, but problems start to arise as, when her husband is away during the day, Julia spots a shadowy figure across the block watching her through his window – and when she learns that a sadistic murderer nicknamed “The Spider” has been stalking and slaying women in the area, she begins to suspect that these two phenomena are connected, potentially putting her in the killer’s crosshairs. Though Francis incessantly implies that she’s misled – and the man watching her across the street (Burn Gorman, of The Dark Knight Rises and Pacific Rim) maintains it’s all a misunderstanding – Julia knows there’s more to this story, and she has to make others believe before it’s too late, and she too loses her life.

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Watcher (IFC Films)

Sure, one could say that, at times, Watcher follows a fairly predictable plot pattern (a woman starts to notice some suspicious stuff going on, she’s gaslit by others into believing she’s misinterpreting things, she’s eventually proven right in the end, etc etc etc), but Okuno and Ford include enough thematically and aesthetically innovative “events” in their narrative to keep us on our toes and thoroughly engaged the whole way through, effectively making it so that we as well start to question Julia’s perception of her surroundings and proposal that this man across the block is “out to get her.” The script also sufficiently stages suspenseful setpiece after suspenseful setpiece, upping the ante until its riotous resolution to assure that we’re drawn further into the drama, never quite sure where we’re headed until we arrive.

Additionally, Okuno makes her own mark on this kind of “female-led modern paranoid thriller” with her dynamic direction, capturing the chaotic circumstances of Julia’s situation with a cold and clinical style that is nevertheless suffused with tension from the first frame to the last. She’s assisted considerably by Benjamin Kirk Nielsen (Slut, Oceaniden), whose chilling cinematography completely envelops the audience as Julia grows more and more manic, perfectly placing us in her petrified perspective. While Watcher doesn’t radically “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to spooky sagas in this “stalker” subgenre or Rear Window-esque works of horror fiction, this stark and skillful style elevates the proceedings exponentially, offering a visually compelling cinematic experience above all else.

And you can never go wrong when casting a former “Final Girl” in the lead role of your latest horror feature, as Maika Monroe – who has scuffled with serial killers (The Guest), supernatural demons (It Follows), and sinister grannies (Greta) – approaches this part with the ardor and attitude of a seasoned vet, filtering through familiar emotions but still always making them feel fresh and fascinating and expressing Julia’s evolution from “frightened and unassuming potential victim” to “courageous and capable challenger” with affecting authenticity, never delivering a false beat. We’re with her spiritually every step of the way, and that’s because Maika infuses Julia (who isn’t quite as intricately developed on the page) with an invigorating integrity and intellect that makes her a mightily moving protagonist. Glusman sells the “skeptical spouse” bit brilliantly, and Gorman is truly terrifying when he takes center stage in the third act, but this is Monroe’s movie through and through, and she owns it.

Watcher probably won’t have the lifespan of a “once-in-a-generation” film fest horror hit like Hereditary that completely redefines the genre and what it can do, but not every horror film has to. For what it is, Watcher is a stellar example of the “stalker” subgenre at its strongest and scariest, all thanks to the spellbinding style employed by writer-director Chloe Okuno and her team and wonderful lead work from the always-mystifying Maika Monroe. In a short and sweet ninety minutes, Watcher provides more than enough eerie chills and thrills to make you spooked by sights you might see out your own window at home, and by any definition, that is the sign of a successful horror film.

Watcher: Trailer (IFC Midnight)

Watcher premiered at SXSW 2022 on March 13, 2022, and was be released in US theaters by IFC Midnight on June 3, 2022.

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