Review: ‘The Watchers’

Ishana Night Shyamalan's Debut Horror Shows Promise But Lacks A Satisfying Payoff

Ishana Night Shyamalan has big shoes to fill, and it’s easy to understand why. Her father is, of course, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan who has established a largely successful career making tense thrillers and thought-provoking horrors with a signature style. While it’s unfair to compare Ishana’s debut with her father’s extensive filmography, it’s also impossible not to see his influence on The Watchers. She’s definitely following in his footsteps, but not quite there yet when it comes to sticking the landing.

To be fair, M. Night has had difficulty sticking the landing a few times over the years, too. The Watchers follows the Shyamalan tradition of well-crafted enigmatic mysteries. The tightly-constructed story follows Dakota Fanning as Mina, a troubled young woman carrying a ton of guilt over a past tragedy. We see her shrugging off a reunion invite from her estranged twin sister, and celebrating the 15-year anniversary of her mother’s death with a night on the town pretending to be anybody but herself. But it’s a trip out into the Scottish forests to deliver a rare parakeet that finds Mina lost in the fog-drenched woods from which there is no escape.

Madeline, played by the terrific Irish actress Olwen Fouéré, comes to Mina’s rescue when ominous, nocturnal creatures start swarming. She is brought to an isolated cabin, which has been dubbed “The Coop”, and is where other lost souls, Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), have been trapped for months. The foursome are there to basically entertain a horde of creatures that come only at night, like caged animals in a zoo.

Based on the novel by A.M. Shine, The Watchers spends a lot of its time explaining things. There’s way too much talking rather than showing. Madeline is the main deliverer of expository dialogue, fleshing out the rules of The Coop and how to survive the Watchers’ hunting ground. This is a real drag in Shyamalan’s attempts to build suspense, as the characters are rarely given a shot to act like real human beings in an unfathomable situation. We learn that Ciara likes to dance, Daniel is a bit of a wild card, and that Madeline has a “Mama Bear” protective streak. As for Mina, she barely has time to express her astonishment at learning such monsters walk the Earth before she’s out breaking the rules and bringing trouble for them all. At least she sticks around long enough to memorize the dialogue in “Lair of Love”, the “Temptation Island”-esque reality show that is all the prisoners have to entertain them. It’s also one of the few comic diversions in a film that is pretty gloomy overall. But the point is clear: voyeurism as a form of entertainment stretches in many directions, some unnatural.

While spending a bit more time with Mina getting the lay of the land would’ve been helpful, The Watchers is best when it keeps us as disoriented as she is. Shyamalan builds up a fascinating mythology around the Watchers, pulling from ancient folklore and adapting it so as to have contemporary relevance. It’s clear that Shyamalan is fascinated by the Watchers, too, because the film comes alive when they are a focal point. Genuine scares are few and far between but one of them comes when the creatures are first revealed, shockingly close and sudden, in all of their ghastly glory.

At its best when following the claustrophobic atmosphere of a chamber piece, The Watchers falls apart in the final act as the story expands beyond the forest. More characters are introduced to explain, but the film never quite gets under our skin the way a lasting horror film should. The apple doesn’t fall far from the Shyamalan tree, though. Shyamalan shows a knack for creating indelible imagery, and getting the most out of a talented lead such as Fanning. But The Watchers is very much a first effort that shows a lot of promise even if it won’t stick around in the memory for long.

The Watchers opens in theaters on June 7th.

The Watchers
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-the-watchersIshana Night Shyamalan has big shoes to fill, and it's easy to understand why. Her father is, of course, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan who has established a largely successful career making tense thrillers and thought-provoking horrors with a signature style. While it's unfair to...