The horror genre has officially evolved. In what the latest 2022 Scream film popularized by dubbing a new brand of “elevated horror”, the transformation has been a long time coming. More thought-provoking and dramatic horror films like The Babadook (2014), Get Out (2017) and Midsommar (2019) have paved the way by centering their terrifying stories on personal and social fears rather than the straightforward gore and ghost tales that dominated the genre in decades past. Fresh new voices such as Chloe Okuna and Zack Ford, whose Sundance and SXSW selected debut feature, Watcher, fits the “elevated horror” billing, are showing audiences that, sometimes, the greatest fears come from within.
Julia (Maika Monroe) and Francis (Karl Glusman) are a young couple who relocate to Romania for work. In an unfamiliar environment, with an unknown language and a fiancé who’s busy at work all day, Julia’s initial and understandable loneliness soon morphs into paranoia as she notices a shadowy figure watching her from an apartment window across the street. News of a recent murderer at large in the city only deepens her concerns and Julia’s psyche begins to crack as she begins to feel this person’s looming presence everywhere she goes. Is it all in her head, or is she the next target of a sadistic serial killer?
Director and co-writer Chloe Okuna’s Watcher tramples over the typical first-feature with a seasoned approach to filmmaking and storytelling. She forces the viewer to immerse themselves into Julia’s character, seeing what she sees, experiencing what she experiences, and watching the person who’s watching her. It’s an uncommon by effective tactic that plays on this theme of voyeurism and sheds a whole new light on the aspect of perspective in film.
Watcher is the type of movie that makes you want to peek inside every closet door and check under all the beds. Its pace is relaxed but calculated, building the tension in a slow and deliberate crescendo that erupts like a symphony of sound during the film’s explosive finale. And through every step of the journey, discomfort becomes normalized. Okuna’s blunt-force methods of finding fear in every subtle movement or turning glance are a revelation and instantly show her maturity as a director. She capitalizes on every tiny detail, many of which are small and simple things, but their collective value makes for a truly enriched horror experience.
As for the cast, is it even a question anymore? Maika Monroe is the new “Scream Queen”, an established genre-icon for a younger generation of horror fans. Her admired work in films like It Follows, The Guest and Villains pales in comparison to her elite-level turn in Watcher. Monroe demands the audience to experience Julia’s struggles vicariously through her performance. Julia’s torment becomes our torment, and her suffering becomes our suffering. It’s a firm character-audience connection that’s rarely found in the genre, and one that’s a testament to Monroe’s blossomed talents. With all of the youthful writing, acting and directing skills evident throughout Watcher, I think it’s safe to say that the future of horror is in great hands.