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A still of a woman looking out a window from the Watcher, one of our 5 favourite movies and shows about being watched

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched? Even worse is if it happens while you’re at home, your inner sanctum disturbed by a blanket sense of dread. From Michael Myers to the Invisible Man, the classic anti-heroes of horror movies play on that frisson of discomfiture that arises in the places where you should be most at ease.

But sometimes it’s a more mundane presence, particularly the everyman, that is most unsettling: the overly solicitous neighbour welcoming you into the exclusive enclave, the Airbnb host with everything at the ready, the shadow in the window across the street. The well-meaning one that always seems to lurk — like the many manifestations of the male gaze in the overly obvious Men. (In a contemporary twist on the genre, it’s the everywoman who is the watcher, yet a benign, misunderstood one: Think of The Girl on the Train, whose titular window-seat voyeur intuits something has gone awry in one of the homes across the tracks; the film inspired a hack-y imitation in The Woman in the Window and both were spoofed in the Netflix series The House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window.)

Why do these movies grip our imagination? Perhaps because men are scary, and it’s best to be prepared for the worst. But also because we can relate to both sides. We all love to watch — peering inside other people’s homes, to imagine the tableaux of their lives — and we definitely tense up when we feel we’re the ones being watched. Especially if it’s while we are in our own houses, the extensions of our selves, our identities. And maybe these films entice us because they implicate us, the viewer, by making us complicit in the watching.

If you plan on bingeing these TV shows and movies about being watched, look out! Spoilers abound.

A still of a woman looking out a window from the Watcher, one of our 5 favourite movies and shows about being watched

Watcher begins with a couple who moves to Bucharest. Francis, the husband (Karl Glusman), goes to work every morning; Julia, the wife (Maika Monroe), stays inside, vegging in their capacious new loft — a sophisticated study in beige — and wandering the city, trying to adapt to a new culture. We’re in an Eastern-European version of Lost in Translation, which slowly enters Rear Window territory when Julia notices a man staring at her from the high rise opposite her own. She soon senses him following her around town and becomes convinced he’s The Spider, a serial killer on the loose in the Romanian capital.

But when the authorities are involved, the tables are turned. The accused becomes the accuser: It’s Julia who is stalking him, he says. In the film’s creepiest nonviolent scene, he confronts her on the subway and demands an apology. As the audience, we too begin to question Julia’s state of mind and become complicit in her gaslighting.

A couple in their kitchen from from an episode of the Watcher.

Chloe Okuno, the director of Watcher, spent many weeks trying to find the right apartment building in which to place the male watcher. As Moviemaker explains, “The watcher’s apartment eventually came down to two choices: One had ‘an inherent strangeness’ that intrigued Okuno — but she found that the strangeness was too on the nose. She ultimately went with a dirtier and more rundown Soviet-style building that contrasted well with ‘Julia’s very beautiful, elegant apartment.’” Julia’s apartment, however, was custom built on a soundstage.

The Watcher
A couple in their kitchen from an episode of the Watcher, one of our 5 favourite movies and shows about being watched

The Watcher might be based on a true story but it should come as no surprise that Ryan Murphy, show-runner of the American Horror Story anthologies, takes a boatload of liberties with the case of a pair of home buyers who begin to receive increasingly threatening letters from someone signing off as The Watcher.

The house in question is a Cape Cod–style McMansion. But inside, someone has done a great interior design job, and the new owners (played by Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale) seem to be able to appreciate it — there’s even mention of a Jeanneret chair on auction. In an article in Architectural Digest, exactly where you might find a profile of a similar style home, Kristi Zea, the series’ production designer explains, “All the furnishings were curated from the current trends in interior design magazines. Ryan [Murphy] was very involved in the selection process. We wanted the house and its contents to be ‘aspirational.’”

The kitchen alone is a treat for the eyes, with its green marble table, metallic-finish cabinets and subway-tile backsplash. Despite all its renos, the fictional version of the house retains a few vestiges of its long history, including the dumb waiter that is the obsession of a local preservationist, and a network of tunnels dating back to Prohibition Era. Could these architectural quirks be the entry points for the letter writer, aka The Watcher?

The Night House
A woman at her desk from the movie The Night House, one of our 5 favourite movies and shows about being watched

In The Night House, one of the eeriest and smartest horror films on Netflix, Rebecca Hall stars as Beth, a woman grieving the recent death of her architect husband. Her dreams (and her drinking) seem to transport her to a house across the lake from her own that also bears an uncanny similarity to it. In her own home, which her husband designed, she finds a floor plan that is also its mirror version. She also finds photographs of women who like exactly like her. What’s going on?

It comes to light that a dark force has long been haunting her, and that the doppelgängers — the home’s twin and the women in the photos — are an attempt to dupe it. It’s a lot. But it’s worth it, thanks to ingenious storytelling and production design.

The Rental

We’ve all heard tales of Airbnb misadventures, but a whole new spate of films, from You Should Have Left to Welcome Home, will make you think twice before online-booking that perfect vacation house. Dave Franco’s The Rental, by far the funnest of the bunch, follows two couples to an oceanside getaway in Oregon that seems like your ideal sprawling estate. Soon enough, one of the party notices a camera eye in the showerhead and all your fears about that overly helpful host that you once rented from spring back to life.

The Rental implicitly questions the tacit trust we have in our newfangled, tech-enabled relationships with people we’ve never met yet who are just a convenient click away from our personal information. It also says something about our surveillance culture — a message that Welcome Home takes to the next level, as the footage captured in that getaway is uploaded on a website for anyone to watch.

A vacation home from Windfall, one of our 5 favourite movies and shows about being watched

A well-placed lens, in this case a security camera, is also the catalyst at the centre of Windfall, which similarly takes place in a vacation house. This time around, the home is not a rental but the property of an obnoxious wealthy man, played with aplomb by Jesse Plemons. He and his wife (Lily Collins), arrive at their getaway unaware that an intruder has been lying in wait to rob them. And when he’s about to take the money and run, the intruder discovers he’s been caught on camera and needs to return to the house. Tragedy ensues.

A couple at a dining table from Windfall.

From the Hitchcockian opening credits, Windfall has major aspirations — even if it doesn’t always live up to them. The major themes are writ large: “white male privilege” and “the anxieties of affluence” might as well be chapter titles. And the unnamed characters are undeniable archetypes, and credited as such: CEO, Wife, Nobody.

The home is a 1922 Spanish Hacienda in Ojai, California, with a sauna out back. It’s a dreamy desert escape that becomes the stuff of nightmares when the Gardener, a working-class person of colour, is accidentally (yet brutally) killed. To further emphasize the latent class warfare at play, the exposition centres on the CEO’s general disregard for his workers. He suspects that Nobody has been trailing him all along, because his job was replaced by an algorithm. Windfall is a thesis on late capitalism, which only the Wife manages to survive physically unscathed.

Looking for more spooky architectural entertainment?

An AZURE Halloween: Watching You Watching Me

In this continuation of AZURE’s scary movie series, we look at five recent releases that turns the home into a stage from which to see and be seen.

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