‘The Watchers’ Review: An Ambitious Yet Rocky Debut From Ishana Night Shyamalan

The Watchers

Ishana Night Shyalaman has entered the horror arena with her directorial debut, The Watchers, an adaptation of A.M. Shine’s book of the same name. While comparisons to her father M. Night Shyamalan are inevitable, Ishana Night Shyamalan proves she’s forging her own path as a filmmaker. Her eye for striking visuals and commitment to ambitious storytelling shows she isn’t afraid to make a splash. But unfortunately, The Watchers suffers from an over-stuffed third act that keeps the film from reaching its full creepy potential.

Dakota Fanning stars in The Watchers as Mina, a young woman with empty eyes and a haunted past who spends her days working at a pet store in Galway. When they get in a rare golden conure to the shop, she’s tasked with driving the bird to a Belfast Zoo, with her boss claiming it’ll be good for her to drive through the Irish countryside. But her tranquil drive turns sinister when she loses services and ends up stuck in the woods.

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As she and her new parrot friend wander into the woods looking for help, she stumbles upon an older woman running through the trees. Here, Mina quickly learns about the threat lurking in the woods after nightfall and that three survivors are living in a strange structure single room structure with a two-sided mirror and basic furniture. The small group, made up of Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), Ciara (Georgina Campbell), and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) call this place The Coop and tell Mina that she’s narrowly escaped the entities known as the Watchers.

Who are the Watchers? The trio has no idea. They just know the rules, which include standing in front of that two-sided mirror every night so the creatures can observe them, not unlike animals at the zoo. They are forbidden to enter the burrows (giant holes in the ground), open the door after sundown, or show their backs to the Watchers. During the day, they can leave to forage and hunt for food, but they must be back before nightfall unless they want to be devoured by whatever threat lurks in the dark.

So of course, Mina decides to immediately rebel against such rules in order to find a way out. She doesn’t trust Madeline and believes there’s no way otherworldly monsters are keeping them hostage. But her rebellious nature has consequences…

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The Watchers is a fascinating case of a film both having too much story and not enough of it. The first two acts are slow and atmospheric as the group trudges, stumbles, runs, and hides in the lush Irish countryside. Shyamalan never reveals much about her characters, making everyone, even Mina, feel suspicious. And while the film never takes up too much time to develop these characters, that often makes them feel a bit hollow and distant, archetypes rather than individuals. It often feels like the script is trying to set up red herrings to keep you from guessing what happens next, rather than focusing on its small cast.

Then, the third act hits, and with that comes at least two different extensive exposition dumps clunkily inserted in the last 30 minutes meant to make everything come together. Personally, I love a complicated world with deep lore. But this is a shocking instance where there needed to be more lore spread out across the narrative. Diving into Irish folklore is no easy task, and while there was a concerted effort here to meld horror with fantasy, it’s accomplished with mixed success that leaves the viewer both hungry for more and overstuffed with information.

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Script aside, Shyamalan and cinematographer Eli Arenson tap into analog horror and found footage horror techniques to shape some of the film’s best scares. Yes, they also beautifully capture the Irish countryside and make everything look both lush and deadly. But the most impressive moments come from either grainy camcorder footage or creepy video logs, the form’s visual distortion lends to making this world feel even more deadly. Yes, lots of filmmakers are using hybrid found footage techniques, but this is one of the more interesting examples of analog techniques being adapted for bigger-budget horror filmmaking.

Perhaps most cleverly, Shyamalan includes a fictional reality show from the 2000s reminiscent of Love Is Blind and Big Brother. That show solely exists on a single DVD provided to the group for entertainment, but quick clips speak more deeply to our obsession with voyeurism. Yes, Mina and Company are locked in a cage, but aren’t these reality TV participants, too? What is good watching versus bad watching? Shyamalan peppers her film with references and questions like this, which helps deepen a story that sometimes isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to say.

Overall, Ishana Night Shyamalan shows that she is a bright new voice on the scene, ready to create weird and wild projects. There are undoubtedly issues with The Watchers, especially when it comes to storytelling and pacing, but the creativity on display is still exciting. Here’s to hoping that more filmmakers tap into the power of analog horror to shape their stories and craft their scares.

The Watchers comes exclusively to theaters on June 7, 2024.

3.0

Summary

‘The Watchers’ features a fascinating story and gorgeous cinematography, but suffers from an over-stuffed script and shaky final act.

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