I recently watched “Watcher,” the nerve-plucking new horror film from Chloe Okuno, inside a vaudeville-era movie palace during the Cleveland International Film Festival. Even better, seeing it in a cavernous, 2,800-seat theater made the bloodcurdling screams from a lady behind me echo like we were in hell’s screening room.
Okuno gasp-laughed when I told her this.
“That’s what you want — for people to be screaming and squirming in their seats,” she said during a recent phone interview. “What I really want to do is go to a theater and give people a 3-D experience by leaning forward in my chair and breathing down their neck.”
“Watcher” doesn’t need her help because it’s creeping people out all on its own. Writing in The New York Times, Lena Wilson called it a “taut, unflinching, relentlessly sharp” film and “one of this century’s most arresting tales of female anxiety.”
Shot and set in Bucharest, Romania, “Watcher” (in theaters) is a psychological thriller about a young woman, Julia (Maika Monroe), who tries to convince her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), that the strange man (Burn Gorman) ) who watches her from his apartment is also stalking her in the streets. Neither Francis nor the police are persuaded by Julia ‘s claims her, but a neighbor, an exotic dancer named Irina (Madalina Anea), befriends and believes her.
In one of the film’s many harrowing scenes, Julia sits across from the man on the subway, uncertain if the contours in his grocery bag are shaped like fruits or a human head. The truth about this creep, when it comes, is a gut punch.
“Watcher,” Okuno’s feature film debut, joins a long tradition of scary moviesfrom “Gaslight” (1944) to “Men” (2022), that explore what happens when women aren’t heard or believed. It also draws from “Rear Window” and “It Follows” (in which Monroe starred) in its calculated approach to voyeurism, stalking and the terror of an antagonist’s slow, deliberate pursuit — themes Okuno also explored in her unnerving revenge-horror short “Slut” and her rattling segment of the found-footage anthology “V/H/S/94.”
Okuno, 34, said she wasn’t allowed to watch scary movies while growing up in Pasadena, Calif., and that it wasn’t until her early teen years that she sought out horror because “it felt legit dangerous.”
“I’m pretty sure I started with ‘Evil Dead’ and it opened my eyes to this whole other world,” she said.
While she was in New York to direct an episode of “Let the Right One In,” a series coming to Showtime, I asked Okuno to pick five films that influenced “Watcher.” Following are her selections her and her edited and condensed commentary.
There are many filmmakers who have been influenced by this, since it takes place in a large apartment and it’s a story about paranoia. But the thing it did very well was that it was a movie told from a singular point of view. It invites you to experience everything emotionally that Mia Farrow’s character is experiencing. That was our mission statement.
Visually, in its composition there are these wide shots in which Farrow is framed within frames, and you feel a combination of loneliness and psychic claustrophobia.
Director: Satoshi Kon
This animated movie from Japan is about a pop star who’s trying to transition into acting but is being stalked by a fan of hers. The imagery of this woman alone in her apartment her builds with a sense of dread. The man who’s pursuing her, we only see fleetingly. It gives us the terror we need while also keeping him at a distance for the majority of the movie.
“Watcher” was originally set in New York, but when we moved it to Bucharest, I rewrote the script and this film became a massive inspiration. I saw it in high school and it spoke to me.
I’ve lived abroad before, and Sofia was able to accurately capture that bittersweet, melancholic feeling of being alone in a city and having a sense of fantasy and romanticism. But she also gives you loneliness and a weird sense of voyeurism.
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
This feels like the most unlikely reference. But on a narrative level, this movie unlocked another side of “Watcher.” It’s so good at photographing the emotions of its lead character by using color, design and composition to help us see what she’s feeling.
Also, the woman meets her neighbor, a sex worker, and they have this connection when she goes to the sex club where she works. It made me create a character Julia could have a relationship with — that was a direct result of watching this movie.
Director: David Fincher
Here, we looked at the John Doe character, who we don’t really meet until the end. That was a model for “Watcher,” in that we don’t have a face-to-face meeting until the third act. It builds to that moment.
This is one of my favorite movies. My entire career I ‘m going to be chasing David Fincher and trying to do something that ‘s an 18th as good as his movies.