I get this sense that this was a throwaway project that developed into something with a little more heft. It’s written and directed as a debut feature by Chloe Okuno (who’s done a V/H/S segment and shorts) but billed as ‘based on the screenplay by Zack Ford’ the way you might see ‘based on the novel by Stephen King’ and be familiar with the work (Ford scripted the 2007 3-D torture porn movie Scar, and I’d not be surprised to find out ‘the screenplay’ was of that vintage). Ex-actress Julia (Maika Monroe) arrives in Bucharest with her marketing exec husband Francis (Karl Glusman), who is of Romanian descent and speaks the language, and is out of sorts from the start … a taxi driver gabbles something she half-understands which her husband won’t accurately translate, the concierge/landlady in the building they move into casually turns on a lamp because the overhead lights aren’t working, she hears noises which could be rough sex or violence from the next apartment and they walk past a neighbourhood crime scene which turns out to be the latest murder committed by a serial killer known as ‘the Spider’.
Monroe, who has been doing interesting under-the-radar work (Villains, Significant Other) since her breakthrough in It Follows, is given almost no backstory but we can infer it from the way she’s left alone to drift by her busy, eager-to-please-new-bosses husband (a list of useless husbands/boyfriends in horror would be very long – and Francis would be high up on it) and is unnerved by almost everything but within the acceptable margins of being in a new city where she doesn’t speak the language and senses all manner of possible threats. Julia looks out of the huge window Rear Window-style and glimpses goings-on opposite, but also a shadow looking back at her. Then she notices a shuffling, out-of-focus guy (Burn Gorman) who might be following her or might just live nearby and starts to make connections – becoming more and more convinced he’s up to no good, even as she makes herself out to be more and more unbalanced. When she tells Francis she’s being looked at, he not unreasonably tells her she started it – and the film makes her much more of a watcher than her possible antagonist, who makes several disarming attempts to defuse the situation (while making her feel worse), including a creepy scene on an almost-empty tube train that Gorman plays with perfect ambiguity.
There are still rote elements – the outgoing gal in the next apartment (Madalina Anea) is obviously earmarked as a probable next victim and there really aren’t enough possible outcomes for the one we get to be much of a surprise, no matter how well and unusually Okuno stages the climax. It also trades in American stereotypes of Eastern Europe (including a cute Dracula reference) that feel a bit rooted in the torture porn cycle circa Hostel – though the plot could as easily have been set in, say, Norway or Algeria. It’s very well crafted, and Okuno has an eye for those tellingly off little details which make even going to a supermarket in a foreign country seem like a perilous and foolhardy venture … let alone tailing a creepy cleaner to his night job slopping out at a lapdancing underground club.