Threatening letters, strange neighbours, sinister threats. It is the everyday life of a family that has just moved into its dream villa.
The latest collaboration between Ryan Murphy and Netflix is called The Watcher. After the boom of Dahmer, the second most-watched English-language show of all time, the American producer is trying again – but it will be difficult – with a seven-part dark miniseries that is less chilling than the Milwaukee monster. And always based on crime news: a wealthy family persecuted by a stalker. The story is not new to adaptations; a film with the same title (in Italian, L'osservatore) was released in 2016. But there is a lot of anticipation about this Netflix reduction, because it came after a very tough battle (six studios are fighting) over the film rights to the article recounting the events (which took place in 2014), written by Reeves Wiedeman on New York Magazine's The Cut site in November 2018.
The Watcher: the plot of the series
The Brannocks – a typical middle- to upper-middle-class Wasp household – have happily moved into a new home in New Jersey, surrounded by majestic, ancient trees. But the tranquillity of the idyllic neighbourhood is interrupted when Nora (Naomi Watts), Dean (Bobby Cannavale) and their two teenage children start receiving a series of letters with alarming contents. Signed by such and such an Observer. A relentless guy who has targeted them and to whom the most advanced security and surveillance precautions take a back seat. All this while the neighbourhood changes its attitude, suddenly becoming intrusive, confusing a lucid reading of the environment.
In the role of Nora Brannock, Naomi Watts is a mature, classy and successful woman who gradually succumbs to terror. Alongside her is Dean (Bobby Cannavale), just seen in Blonde as Joe DiMaggio, an impulsive and distrustful husband who doesn't like neighbours' intrusions, let alone being stalked.
Jennifer Coolidge (The White Lotus) is Karen Calhoun, a divorced and vindictive, yet lovable and welcoming, real estate agent: she was the one who sold the cottage to the Brannocks. Also popping up in the series is Mia Farrow – Hollywood veteran and now most famous for her controversies with Woody Allen: her Pearl is a seemingly friendly but ambiguous neighbour. Her presence in The Watcher is particularly apt: in 1968 she was a young wife manipulated by her neighbours in Rosemary's Baby; now she is on the side of the bad guys, a community that resembles a cult.
The Watcher teaser and trailer
The first teaser released in early September shows Karen describing the mansion, which is also equipped with a dumbwaiter large enough to hold an adult. A tour in which she advises the next tenants to keep their bedroom curtains closed, the neighbours are prying, rather strange types.
In the first trailer – unveiled during Netflix's Tudum event – the Brannocks receive a letter from the so-called Watcher, revealing his obsession with the house and consequently – since they ended up living there – with them as well. Nora and Dean question the neighbours as strange and terrifying events occur.
Threatening letters. Strange neighbours. Sinister threats
Behind The Watcher are Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, the showrunner's long-time collaborators from Glee to Scream Queens and on to Dahmer. The two – skilful manipulators of baser instincts resold in dazzling packaging – have created a horror film more shocking than a horror film, hinging on the misfortune of having paid out of one's own pocket for a residential nightmare.
The contrast between the bucolic charm of the neighbourhood – pretty cottages, manicured lawns – and the alienating atmosphere makes your skin crawl. And it does it better than the supernatural and splatter game of American Horror Story. Stories of monsters and ghosts are less scary than a hostile neighbourhood where one has invested in secure happiness. To such an extent that the dwelling becomes a prison of safety, perhaps as bad as everything else. In the grip of paranoia and claustrophobia, the Brannocks are good company if you can handle the tension of their downward spiral, certainly not for everyone.
The true story of The Watcher
The story inspired by The Watcher is that of the Broaddus (real family surname), who bought the fateful house for $1.3 million in 2014 (in Westfield, New Jersey), and who on the verge of moving in after a renovation received a letter (the first of three signed by The Watcher). '657 Boulevard has been an object of interest to my family for decades,' writes the stranger. And, as he approaches his 110th birthday, I have been entrusted to watch over and await his second coming'.
So the house was under 'observation' all along? The confirmation comes with the second entry: 'My grandfather watched over the house in the 1920s, my father in the 1960s. Now it is my time. Do you know the history of the house? Do you know what lurks within its walls? Why are you here? I will find out. Details about the need to shed young blood also emerged, explicitly referring to the couple's children; as well as descriptions of details inside the house known only to those who might have frequented it.
Police investigations – all aimed at neighbours – failed to frame anyone; Michael Langford and family were examined, with a vantage point on the 'guarded' home. Then the Woods, former owners who had lived at 657 Boulevard for 23 years (who confessed to having received a letter from the Observer shortly before moving elsewhere; and for which they were unsuccessfully sued by the Broaddus). With the case still open, despite private investigations even by the FBI, the legend of the graphomaniac guy has grown over time, expanding the imagination of the whole town. And of the writers. Meanwhile, Nora and Dean – who never lived in the house – sold it in 2019 for a mere $400,000.
Written by Michael Zippo
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