After making the rounds on the festival circuit last fall, 2017 independent horror film Who’s Watching Oliver made its debut on some VOD services on July 3. Directed by Richie Moore and co-written by star Russell Geoffrey Banks, Raimund Humber, and Moore, Who’s Watching Oliver is an intriguing and truly disturbing film. Part exploitative horror, part psychological character study, and part quirky romance, its eclectic style results in an utterly watchable film for horror fans not easily dissuaded by violent subject matter.
Oliver is a mentally unstable British man living in Thailand. Exhibiting features of both obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and autism, Oliver’s daytime ritual is a rigidly structured routine of organizing his apartment and tourist sightseeing. Late in the evenings, however, Oliver hunts for women in bars, bringing them home to torture and murder while his cruel, domineering mother encourages and watches through FaceTime video chats. When Oliver meets and takes an interest in Sophia, his routine is disrupted and his mother’s hold over him is challenged.
Brutal Violence That Will Deter Some Viewers
Who’s Watching Oliver is a brutally violent film that disturbs on two levels. The onscreen violence is graphic and uncompromising with depictions of confinement, sexual, violence, and torture. This is not the stylized violence that characterizes popular horror franchises like Friday the 13th or Saw. For horror fans familiar with the work of Jess Franco, or those viewers who have seen, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, they can expert a similar style of depicting violence. Moore puts a few extremely uncomfortable scenes up the screen. The accompanying sound effects will ensure that closing your eyes will not help.
But while Hitchcock could only imply much of the subtext in Psycho, Moore exercises free reign in Who’s Watching Oliver.
If the onscreen violence is disturbing, the abusive mother-son relationship further transgresses against several taboos. But while Hitchcock could only imply much of the subtext in Psycho, Moore exercises free reign in Who’s Watching Oliver. The first time Oliver FaceTime’s his mother at 1am, both the time and interaction seem odd. When ‘Momma’ chides him on his wardrobe and the absence of a ‘girlfriend’, it sounds like something an overbearing mother might say.
But as the story unfolds. Who’s Watching Oliver disturbs on a psychological level as we watch ‘Momma’ abuse and coerce her son into murdering women. Not much is left to ambiguity. She berates her son into sexually gratifying himself while she watches in one scene, and then spews a stream of obscenities at one of Oliver’s victims later. Margaret Roche chills as “Momma” in what basically amounts to just FaceTime appearances.
A Horror Film That Doubles as an Offbeat Romance
What distinguishes Who’s Watching Oliver from the exploitative fare of Jess Franco is the unique and almost inexplicable emotional core at the heart of the film. Russell Geoffrey Banks completely transforms himself into the socially awkward Oliver. Somehow, amidst all the blood and violence, Banks also succeeds in transforming Oliver into an oddly empathetic character. In one scene, Oliver shares his abusive childhood in comic book art with a stray cat that occasionally visits his apartment. It’s a quietly heartbreaking moment that shows Oliver’s desperation to be normal. Later, watching Oliver practice a ‘tough love’ speech in front of the mirror only to be broken down by ‘Momma” in seconds is deflating. Over the course of the movie, you find yourself wanting Oliver to break free.
The awkward romance that develops between Oliver and Sophia should be implausible. It just shouldn’t work in this type of movie, but it does.
The awkward romance that develops between Oliver and Sophia should be implausible. It just shouldn’t work in this type of movie, but it does. Yet their growing connection feels as natural and engaging as what one might expect to find in an offbeat romantic comedy. Sophia, played by Sara Malakul Lane, as it turns out, is equally quirky and brings out the best in Oliver. It’s this relationship, as believable as it is implausible, that also provides Who’s Watching Oliver with a heavy dose of tension in its final moments. I actually found myself very invested and caring about whether “Momma” would be able to coerce Oliver to kill Sophia.
An Eclectic Blend of Styles
If there is another aspect of Who’s Watching Oliver that needs mentioning it is Moore’s eclectic blending of tones. Disturbing and grim moments of graphic violence are seamlessly built into quirky romantic moments that almost border on whimsical. Much like the romance between Oliver and Sophie, this tonal shift shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.
One thing that really helps Moore craft this eclectic gem is the film’s music and sounds. At the opening of Who’s Watching Oliver, the sound of ticking clocks both sets an early atmosphere as well as telling the audience something about Oliver’s OCD tendencies. Sound director Alex Boyesen intersperses fun jazz chords, techno beats, and traditionally sharp horror chords to create a truly innovative auditory palette that helps propel the story.
A Viewing Experience as Engaging as it is Off-Putting
Who’s Watching Oliver was arguably one of the more interesting viewing experiences in quite a long time. On the one hand, it’s a brutally violent film that forces to turn your head away from the screen multiple times. Nonetheless it’s also a movie that gets you fully invested in its main character and his relationship that you find yourself empathizing with him. From the sounds, visuals, and performances, Who’s Watching Oliver is a horror film that diehard genre fans should be watching. But be warned – it’s not a movie for everybody.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A-