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Movie Review: “THE WATCHERS” is watchable but not a must-see

Thursday, June 6, 2024 | Featured Post (Third), Reviews


Starring Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell and Olwen Fouéré
Written and directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan
New Line/Warner Bros.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and there are a lot of trees, in THE WATCHERS, the feature writing/directing debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan, daughter of M. Having cut her teeth on episodes of her father’s series SERVANT, she here continues the family big-screen tradition of focusing on characters under intense paranormal pressure, leading up to a Big Twist at the end–with some awkward, declarative dialogue along the way.

Dakota Fanning stars as Mina, who’s living, and working in a pet store, in Galway, Ireland, though she only has an Irish accent in her first scene or two. She has a tendency to speak her thoughts in the most literal ways, sometimes to herself in a mirror (“Don’t look at me like that, it’s just something I do sometimes”). We learn that it’s the 15th anniversary of her mother’s death, a tragedy she still hasn’t fully processed, before she’s sent by her boss to deliver a parrot to a zoo near Belfast. Not being familiar with the driving routes of the Emerald Isle, I can still assume there’s a major highway or two between these key cities, but instead, Mina’s GPS takes her on a back road into a deep forest, where her car breaks down and strands her.

From the opening scene, we already know that these particular woods are a dangerous place to be, and she’s rescued from potential peril by Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), a woman who allows Mina access to a bunker she calls “the coop.” There, she and two younger people, Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), are in thrall to creatures outside that they refer to as “the Watchers.” One wall of “the coop” is a large one-way mirror through which the Watchers can observe them, but the exact nature of these beings and what they look like remains a mystery.

Shyamalan, adapting the novel by A.M. Shine, does an efficient, tense job setting up this scenario, and she and cinematographer Eli Arenson (LAMB) capture rich atmosphere on the Irish locations; even the trees themselves look threatening. Fanning makes for a sympathetic heroine, and her three fellow watchees are well-cast, led by Fouéré, who’s rapidly becoming the Irish Robert Englund of the 2020s and brings the proper intensity as the one who’s been trapped there the longest. Campbell, also a horror regular lately after BARBARIAN and LOVELY, DARK, AND DEEP, is always a bright, welcome presence, and Finnegan is convincingly haunted.

The strength of the ensemble helps compensate for the fact that, Mina aside, there’s not much to the characters as written. No doubt Shine’s prose gave us more of a look into their inner lives, but on screen there’s little dimension to them beyond their determination to survive and perhaps outwit the creatures that besiege them. (Having not read the novel, I would have guessed that the talkative and ultimately helpful parrot was a gimmick added to the screenplay, but nope, a little on-line checking reveals that the bird was part of the book too.) Shyamalan tantalizes us with very brief glimpses of the Watchers and sound design that effectively evokes their presence, getting us psyched for the eventual reveal of their appearance and true nature.

THE WATCHERS, though, is a case where the more literal the creatures become, the less scary they are. Once seen clearly, they register more as products of the visual effects department than as folkloric beings, and what we’re told about their origins even kind of clouds the issue of whether we should be frightened of them, or sympathetic on some level. In addition, there’s a major reveal (reminiscent of a certain cult TV series from a couple of decades back) some time before the climactic twist that throws the circumstances into new relief, and allows for the necessary explanations. The movie, in fact, has a lot of explaining to do, and it gets in the way of cranking up the kind of relentless tension a film like this should generate in the home stretch.

As a first feature, THE WATCHERS demonstrates that Shyamalan has some chops, and time will tell whether she can create or find the material that will allow her to really let them shine–and to find her own voice. In and of itself, the movie has its moments without necessarily being compelling enough to lure enough watchers of its own.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).