clock menu more-arrow no yes
Maika Monroe stands alone on a dark subway platform in Watcher Image: IFC Midnight

Filed under:

The horror movie Watcher asks and answers ‘Are scream queens still a thing?’

It Follows star Maika Monroe brings an exploitation-era idea to the age of ‘elevated horror’

Does so-called elevated horror have room for scream queens? That affectionate term for actresses like Jamie Lee Curtis, Linnea Quigley, or Danielle Harris, who became known for their work in multiple horror films, usually brings lower-budget slashers and exploitation pictures to mind more than it conjures up indie meta-horror, or even more mainstream-friendly horror, like The Conjuring’s extended universe.

But a number of recent horror movies suggest that a scream-queen career is still a viable possibility, even as the genre evolves away from the era that created the idea in the first place. Jenna Ortega recently proved her horror bona fides by appearing in a slasher a month for the first quarter of 2022, playing variations on female-character tropes in Scream, Studio 666, and Ti West’s porn-horror X. Now, with the release of Watcher, Maika Monroe makes a case for herself as a different, slower-burning scream queen for the A24/Neon crowd.

Watcher isn’t actually an A24 or Neon release. It comes from IFC Midnight, a company that’s shown interest in the artier side of horror for significantly longer than those other two companies. (Its recent releases Hatching and The Innocents are solidly representative.) Nevertheless, it’s easy to describe Watcher in a way that makes it sound like one of those portent-loaded, barely subtextual horror stories about trauma, grief, and/or gaslighting.

Maika Monroe stands as a tiny figure looking out of a high window at night in Watcher Image: IFC Midnight

Julia (Monroe) moves to Bucharest with her partner (Karl Glusman), a native Romanian who knows the area and speaks the language. He also works long hours at the demanding job that brought him to Europe. Julia, meanwhile, is left unmoored in a strange-to-her city. Alone in their new apartment, she becomes convinced that someone’s watching her from across the street. She thinks she sees this same figure around the city, following her. Her neighbor and new friend Irina (Madalina Anea) listens to her concerns, but hardly anyone else does.

That’s about it for Watcher. The setup and execution are ideal for both minimalist indie horror and a pandemic-era production. (The film was shot on location in Romania in spring 2021.) In spite of its small scale, Watcher doesn’t rely only on the power of suggestion, or limit itself to emphasizing the symbolic importance of Julia’s fears. Director Chloe Okuno, making her feature debut after directing a segment of V/H/S/94, knows how to maintain a slow burn without letting the flame blow out. Using some simple images — a shadowy figure staring out a window, the eerie familiarity of a man on the street, the blurs and shallow focus created by rain on glass — she provokes genuine, instinctive shivers.

And yes, there is barely concealed subtext in Watcher about believing women, about men unintentionally aiding gaslighters, and about the ways even small power imbalances can turn menacing or deadly. But the movie maintains the immediate tension of its individual scenes. Even when it takes on the spare qualities of a remembered nightmare, it doesn’t use dream logic or allusiveness as a narrative shortcut. Watcher makes intuitive, creepy sense in a way that some other small-scale horror movies (like the recent Master or the upcoming Resurrection, both of which premiered alongside Watcher at Sundance) do not.

The movie’s strategies and subtext both lean heavily on Monroe, who marks a progression from her past horror work. In It Follows, she was a teenager occupying the liminal space between waning childhood and adult responsibility, stalked by a supernatural figure that seemed to represent a broader existential terror. Around the same time, she starred in The Guest as another young woman on the cusp of adulthood. In that film, a stranger shows up at a grieving family’s home, claiming to be the army buddy of their deceased son; Monroe plays the dead man’s 20-year-old sister and the only member of the family who’s properly suspicious about the convenient comfort this stranger offers. She’s part cynical gloss on Charlie from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, part crafty Final Girl.

Maika Monroe stands close to a window, looking outward, with her hand on the glass in Watcher Image: IFC Midnight

Watcher finds Monroe aging out of Final Girl status. Now well into her 20s, she’s playing a woman who’s been handed what seems like a sophisticated grown-up life without any actual contents: no job, no other family, a single tenuous friendship, and seemingly nowhere to go. The emptiness thrust upon her leaves Julia vulnerable to her fears, whether real or imagined. While there’s some on-the-nose dialogue about what she’s going through, her state of mind is best communicated through Monroe, by now an expert at uneasy adulting. She still looks a bit like an open-book teen-star ingenue, the nice girl who just barely evades the slasher’s knife. (Specifically, she resembles Hilary Duff.)

From underneath that image, though, her guardedness and wariness emit an anxious, low hum. Across her three major horror roles, Monroe defies the gleefully poor decision-making that might be associated with a traditional scream queen. Her performance in Watcher is a study in realization, as Julia starts to understand that it’s going to take a lot of work just to fight for her own agency. Julia comes unglued quietly and believably, giving herself over to horror’s genre thrills while maintaining a core of lingering, everyday fears.

Given Monroe’s capacity for the latter, some artier-minded horror enthusiasts may be underwhelmed by the way Watcher resolves. It’s ultimately more of a well-wrought genre piece than a new vision in terror, and it isn’t as visceral or memorable as classics like Rear Window or Rosemary’s Baby, which Okuno has cited as inspirations. (A high bar to clear, to be sure.) Yet its creepy unease lingers, and just as in It Follows and The Guest, Monroe is the face of that unease. That’s the power of a great scream queen.

Watcher premieres in theaters on June 3.

What to Watch

20 great horror movies you can watch right now

Reviews

The horror adaptation The Black Phone has the same problem as the It movies

What to Watch

9 delightfully spooky horror shows to watch at home

View all stories in Horror

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon