We first encounter Julie Alexander (Eliza Taylor), the put-upon protagonist of Erik Bernard’s I’ll Be Watching, through her work: a series of details from her paintings, all showing women gazing out into the middle distance, or into mirrors. One of her subjects floats fully clothed on a water’s surface, staring upwards like soon-to-drown Ophelia. Another clutches a knife. And if we detect in the muted, swirling colours and contorted postures of these paintings a certain neurosis, that is confirmed by the first glimpse, in close-up, of the artist herself – her face a living picture of anxiety and alienation as she stands alone at a crowded launch party for her first exhibition in New York, waiting vainly for her husband Marcus (Taylor’s real-life husband Bob Morley) to arrive and rescue her from her own crippling introversion.
Instead Julie’s sister Rebecca (Hannah Fierman) turns up – and when it becomes clear that Marcus is not going to show, Julia declares a sudden need to rush home and give her cat Sergeant Pepper its medication. Rebecca insists on going instead while Julie stays to drink up some Dutch courage and mingle with buyers. As Rebecca enters Julie’s apartment, she barely has time to register that the high-tech security system has been disarmed, before a masked intruder garrotes her from behind.
Cut to some time later, and Julie is even more of a wreck, tortured with guilt that she should have been killed instead of her beloved sister, struggling through marriage counselling sessions with Dr Tate (Bryan Batt), and constantly mixing her meds with booze to cope with her continuing trauma. As an objective correlative to all these psychological scars, Julie is also physically injured, her ankle in a cast as the result of an accident. This impairment confines her to limping painfully about the two-storey house into which she and Marcus have just moved, located upstate some 30 miles from the Metropolis. Julie may be recovering from her grief and her marital issues, but her progress is literally slow.
When Marcus is suddenly called away for a five-day work trip to Hong Kong, Julie finds herself left by herself once more, with only her cat – and the prototype Alexa-like AI of Marcus’ own design which centrally controls the houses internal cameras, high-tech security systems and electrical devices – for company. As Julie starts to wonder whether she may not, in this isolated setting, be entirely alone, the house becomes all at once her prison and panopticon. For now it seems that history is repeating itself, and again, as in the film’s prologue, there is an absent husband, heavy drinking, failing tech, and a malicious home invader, all realising and reiterating Julie’s worst nightmares.
Written by Elisa Manzini and Sara Sometti Michaels, I’ll Be Watching tracks a fragile woman through a domestic space as she finds her growing sense of alarm being dismissed variously as bad dream, drunkenness or paranoid delusion by Dr Tate and the local sheriff (David Keith), while the intrusive presence of other men – local repairman Mike (Seth Michaels) and the weird mailman Gerald (Luke Davis) – only adds to Julie’s unease. Even Marcus, watching Julie constantly from his distant location via the house’s closed-circuit cameras, refuses to take her fears seriously, telling her over and over to take her pills and “just try to relax”.
Evidently Julie’s only allies here are female, be it her best friend Sophie (Natasha Halevi) who maintains phone contact from the City, or Marcus’ sporadically working AI system, which has a feminine voice (Kyle Larsen) to match its female name. That name, Hera, seems to combine the famously jealous goddess of Greek mythology (confirmed by its mannered Greek rendering as Ἡρα in the closing credits) and the title of Spike Jonze’s AI-based romantic drama Her (2013). For Hera is Julie’s godlike – which is to say aloof and occasionally interventionist – confidante, with a personality all of her own.
As Julie’s unseen persecutor exploits the digital programming of house and car to taunt and entrap her, it is unclear whether what we are watching is more akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic thriller Rear Window (1954) retold from the inside, or to Roman Polanski’s androphobic psychodrama Repulsion (1965), or to Donald Cammell’s technophobic sci-fi Demon Seed (1977),or to Leigh Whannell’s misogynistic horror The Invisible Man (2020).
Much of I’ll Be Watching plays like an escalating game of cat and mouse, as someone toys first with all the most vulnerable points in Julie’s mind, before emerging from the shadows to try and harm her body as well. Bernard ratchets up the tension and keeps the viewer guessing what is really going on with all manner of red herrings, before delivering a final-act reveal in which tables are turned, gender is confounded and a plot that had seemed largely generic proves to be a singularity. For here, everyone is being gaslit under a neurotic gaze that is not straightforwardly male.
strap: Erik Bernard’s genrefluid home invasion thriller pits a physically and psychologically damaged woman against a malicious, manipulative voyeur
© Anton Bitel