Producers: Roy Lee, Steven Schnedier, Derek Dauchy, John Finemore, Aaron Kaplan Mason Novick and Sean Perrone   Director: Chloe Okuno   Screenplay: Chloe Okuno and Zack Ford   Cast: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman, Madalena Anea, Daniel Nuta, Flaviu Crisan,  Stefan Iancu, Florian Ghimpu, Cristina Deleanu, Tudor Petrut and Ciubuciu Bogdan Alexandru   Distributor: IFC Midnight

Grade: B

This debut feature by writer-director Chloe Okuno may not be especially innovative in terms of plot, but it presents a fairly simple, familiar suspense story with considerable atmosphere and style.  “Watcher” is a vast improvement over “Storm Drain,” the episode she contributed to the anthology movie “V/H/S94.”

A good deal of the somber mood derives not just from the creepily noirish cinematography of Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, but from the locale—Bucharest, to which American Julia (Maika Monroe) has just moved from New York with her Romanian-born husband Francis (Karl Glusman) following his job promotion.  They move into an apartment where, appropriately, the light switch at first doesn’t work.  But it’s quickly fixed, leaving only the noises emanating from the neighboring flat of Irina (Madalena Anea), whose ex-boyfriend Cristian (Daniel Nuta) occasionally bangs on her door, as a nuisance.

That is, if you don’t count the elderly woman who bothers everyone searching for her lost cat, or the voluble landlady, or the faceless handyman.  It also doesn’t help that Julia is just learning Romanian, in which Francis chats fluently with his old friends; Okuno cunningly leaves conversations that swirl around her untranslated, except for the snatches of them her husband bothers to offer, so that we are as lost as she is.  (Of course, many of the characters—like Irina and Cristian, and even a policeman played by Florian Ghimpu—speak English too, so she, and we, are not always in the dark.)

Julia in understandably nervous in such unfamiliar surroundings, especially since Francis is gone most of the day, leaving her alone, although Irina is quite friendly.  But there are two further things that trouble her.  One is that at the moment Bucharest is experiencing a spate of murders of young women attributed to a serial killer nicknamed the Spider—and on a walk one night she and Francis come upon the scene as his latest victim is being carried away.  The other is that she fears that she’s being followed—and suspects that the stalker is the man (Burn Gorman) she believes is watching her from a window in the building across the street, and may be following her.

Julia’s suspicions not only unsettle her but turn her into a watcher herself—of the man she believes is watching her.  When she insists that Francis call the police, her own actions will cause the man to charge her with harassment of him.  Is she paranoid, or is he really a danger?  Is he, in fact, the Spider?

The twists “Watcher” employs to resolve these questions aren’t terribly convincing: there are an awful lot of red herrings and a few logical lapses along the way to an ending designed to satisfy the audience’s desire for a cut-and-dried resolution in which good triumphs unambiguously over evil.  But even here Okuno’s sure sense of control, combined with Monroe’s stellar performance, carries the day, even if you might be scratching your head over some details as the credits roll.  One can also appreciate the film’s appeal to our cinematic memories: certainly a reference to “Charade,” in which Audrey Hepburn played a heroine as bewildered as Julia about the people around her (even her husband), represents a sly wink to the fact that the makers know they’re working in tried-and-true formula.

The supporting cast is strong too, with Gorman especially chilling as an enigmatic, vaguely threatening figure, and the smaller roles exceptionally well filled.  Nora Dumitrescu’s production design takes advantage of the Bucharest locales, editor Michael Block helps to maintain the tension, and so does Nathan Hapern’s score.  The result is a moody, slow-simmering piece of work that proves that a solid chiller can still be made from modest materials.      

Incidentally, the screenplay credit for the film is odd—“written by Chloe Okuno based on the screenplay by Zack Ford.”  Whatever that means, the result is pretty good, despite a few narrative hiccups.