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Indie Spotlight: Who’s Watching Oliver?

Making its way around the indie horror festival circuits, notably the Fright Night Theatre Film Festival and the Horrorhound Film Festival, Who’s Watching Oliver? is a film that has been garnering acclaim across the horror community, particularly for the performance of the lead actor, Russell Geoffrey Banks. Banks stars as the titular character Oliver, a mentally disturbed man who moonlights as a rapist serial killer under the influence of his manipulative, controlling mother (Margaret Roche). However, complications arise when he begins to develop feelings for Sophia (Sara Mulakul Lane) creating a crisis of conscience within.

Who’s Watching Oliver? is the directorial debut for Richie Moore, whose most notable previous work consists of being a camera operator for major blockbusters like The Hangover sequels and Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol. Disappointingly, however, this experience does not translate over to his debut feature often times mirroring a student film in production quality. While much of these blemishes can be excused due to the film’s minuscule budget (some aspects like the special effects even praised), other amateur errors cannot be as easily forgiven. Shots frequently go in and out of focus early on, and gaffes like exposed mic wires stand out. These minor technical faults would be easier to overlook if the content of the film were more redeemable.   

The performance of Banks as the title character proves to be the highlight of the film. A character as disturbed as Oliver would be a challenging role even for professional A-list actors to take on, let alone someone with considerably less acting experience working in the film industry, and Banks seems to have given an admirable amount of effort and commitment to inhabiting the role. His specific demeanor adds a dimension to him reminiscent of Norman Bates, on one hand, a simple-minded man-child and on the other a menacing stalker. 

Beyond Banks’ performance, There is little in the script for the other characters. For a character who is supposed to act as a looming presence throughout the film with an intimidating, manipulative hold over the supposed protagonist, the mother’s presence is limited to Skype calls. Thus, there is a distancing effect that limits her intimidation within the confines of the narrative.  Essentially a cheerleader for her son’s vicious escapades, the role is further mitigated by the strange decision to utilize a voice that appears to be a poor impression of a campy cartoon witch.

The depictions of women all across the board in this film are not particularly flattering all conforming to the negative stereotypes that female characters in film are continually relegated to playing, especially in the horror genre. The aforementioned mother is a controlling and manipulative maternal figure, Sophia only exists to be a romantic interest for the male protagonist, even though she has no conceivable reason to be attracted to or interested in him whatsoever, and any other woman we see is this movie is used purely to be victimized and to have their bodies be exploited and mutilated on screen in graphic, excessive detail.

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The depiction of women leaves much to be desired in Who’s Watching Oliver?

Who’s Watching Oliver? wants to be seen as something disturbing that will crawl under the skin of its viewers, however, its attempts fall short of reaching any real psychological horror, and instead resort to extensive scenes of rape in order to try to disturb and disgust,  that instead comes off as cheap and exploitive. The film also leaves nothing to the imagination in regards to the several instances of rape that it forces us to endure. It never shies away from showing us the acts when they happen and lingers on them for far too long.

The film is clearly ignorant of the fact that rape as a subject matter is required to be treated with far more delicacy in order to be seen as anything other than exploitation for the sake of shock value. Expecting the audience to sympathize with and emotionally invest in Oliver furthers this tone deafness. The film never challenges Oliver to seriously come to terms with the severity of what it is that he’s doing, other than have us be aware that he doesn’t like doing it. It paints the mother as the villain in this situation while still treating Oliver like the victim but never offers an avenue for him to earn that redemption.

Not only is the basis for the initial attraction between Oliver and Sophia flimsy and unwarranted, but the progression of their relationship is even less believable. Even after she discovers that he’s a rapist/murderer, her opinion of him remains largely unchanged, almost as if that revelation only endears her to him even more. It’s implied that she’s also experienced some sort of personal trauma and that she feels a kinship with him because of his fraught relationship with his mother, but in seeking redemption for his heinous actions due to his own abuse and trauma, the conclusion of the film implies that abusive behavior towards others is forgivable so long as the abuser is also a victim of abuse themselves.

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Russell Geoffrey Banks is a bright spot in his performance as the titular character 

We’re never expected to feel the same sympathy for the women that Oliver rapes and murders as we are expected to feel for him in regards to his relationship with his mother and Sophia. The film ends with Oliver and Sophia lovingly cradling each other while standing over the naked, bloody corpse of one of Oliver’s victims; a conclusion which is meant to be seen as the triumphant moment where the hero overcomes the obstacles he has been faced with and he achieves everything that he set out to accomplish.

The anti-hero defies convention by acknowledging their faults that exist outside the traditional hero’s framework; they are flawed, morally questionable characters that still draw our attention in spite of their obvious shortcomings.  By treating Oliver’s journey as if he’s still a traditional hero who deserves sympathy, that effect becomes lost, resulting in a horribly misguided morally ambiguous interpretation of the nature vs. nurture argument. Though it was most likely not Moore’s intent to sympathize with or excuse the actions of a sociopathic murderer and rapist, when the actions of the character are so extreme, and the narrative does so little to vilify or even question his actions, it’s hard for the film to come across as being anything else.

Who’s Watching Oliver? is available now on VOD

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