'The Watchers' Is Not Worth The Watch

Dakota Fanning as Mina pressed against her reflection in The Watchers

Dakota Fanning as Mina pressed against her reflection in The Watchers

Warner Bros Pictures

The Watchers is another one of those films that UK and Irish distributors have judged as having too alienating and unmarketable a title, so it’s been pitched in both Britain and Ireland as The Watched. (The Watchers is an Irish-set and co-produced film) The slight confusion over what Ishana Night Shyamalan, the eldest daughter of the Split and The Sixth Sense director M Night, has actually named her debut film takes on a shade of disappointment once you get to the end of the film.

As the title is shown on-screen at the start of the film and before the end credits, Shyamalan had the opportunity to play on how characters traverse from being spectated to spectators; perhaps the second time we see the title, it’s changed to reflect this subject-object relationship. Unfortunately, The Watchers isn’t interested in subtle perspective shifts or acute voyeuristic psychologies, instead wasting Shyamalan’s able filmmaking instincts on a single-minded and self-blunted folk horror tale, and the craft is far too conventional and ineffective for such a high-concept story.

Mina (Dakota Fanning) is an American living in Galway, Ireland, working at a pet store in a perpetual dissociative haze after the death of her mother fifteen years prior. When she’s tasked with transporting a rare yellow parakeet across the country, Mira has one final night of putting on a wig, pretending to be a different person to handsome strangers in bars, and driving off to make the delivery. When her car breaks down at the treeline of an expansive, eerie forest, she finds her only refuge in a modernist bunker with huge, one-way glass – but with the mirror on the inside and the transparent glass on the outside.

Three frantic survivors tell her of their predicament: outside are strange, violent entities who kill anyone in the forest come nightfall, and to survive, you must present yourself to these “watchers” all night for them to passively observe them. The make-shift ringleader Madeline (Olwen Fouéré) makes them abide by strict rules to stay inside, not try to escape, and not let anyone inside, but the lack of details about their woodland predators and the strange structured way they exist as their prey pushes Mina to investigate who’s watching them and why.

It’s a tantalizing horror premise, one that suggests a blend of clinical experimentation crossed with malformed folk demons, but Shyamalan’s gifts as a filmmaker struggle to evolve past the half-hour format she’s used to on Servant (she directed six episodes of the thriller series produced by her father). Shyamalan boosts the volume of the branch breaks and bodily injuries and knows just how uncomfortably long to linger on monster silhouettes and outstretched hands, but too much of The Watchers plods along without the intense, focused energy that should pair with such a creepy, gnarly premise.

A major problem is the characters – not so much the performances, as their universally detached and off-kilter energy is fitting for a thriller interested in convoluted and anxiety-inducing plotting (this is the daughter of M Night Shyamalan, after all), but the characters themselves offer little to hook us through the largely single location chills. Only Mina is afforded something resembling a three-dimensional characterization – she’s bottled up her 1.5 decades worth of unarticulated guilt over the accident that killed her mother and scarred her sister, and while Fanning’s wide-eyed ennui suggests a promising future in eerie horror, her trauma feels too distant and immaterial to have much bearing on her fight against the watchers – despite her attempts to link herself to her predator in dialogue. 

(A smaller complaint: the casting choice for Mina’s twin sister Lucy (yes, that is a reference to Irishman Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is downright cowardly considering how well-known Dakota’s actress sister is.)

Georgina Campbell as Ciara, Dakota Fanning as Mina, Oliver Finnegan as Daniel and Olwen Fouéré as Madeline watching us in 'The Watchers'

Georgina Campbell as Ciara, Dakota Fanning as Mina, Oliver Finnegan as Daniel and Olwen Fouéré as Madeline in 'The Watchers'

Warners Bros Pictures

It’s unfair to compare a debut filmmaker’s success and failure to a parent who’s worked for twenty years longer than them, but Shyamalan Jr.’s choice to make a film so similar to the tone and themes of M Night’s work ends up being its greatest undoing. There is none of the skillful sleight-of-hand, playful but sincere mood, or genuinely moving depictions of “the othered” you might expect from a film with “From Producer M Night Shyamalan” splattered across the poster. 

In adapting Irish author A.M. Shine’s novel, Ishana Shyamalan doubles down on the specifics of Irish folklore, compressing their mythology into a rushed denouement that, if it took up more of the narrative in a measured, more thoughtfully plotted form, could give the film the dark academia and tortured fantasy vibes that it seems desperate to break into—but only at the beginning and end of the film. 

The Watchers avoids the heights of voyeur thrills and is unwilling to commit to the modernized folktale that the ending insists the film is about, leaving us with a clumsy, disorientated horror that fails to shapeshift between genres and influences. Maybe the American title should be used by everyone—no one is going to say they’re happy they Watched this.

The Watchers is playing in theaters now.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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