The HoloFiles

REVIEW: The Watchers

By George & Josh Bate

The Watchers review

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers for the movie Watchers

Acclaimed directors’ children going on to take up the same profession as their parents is more common than one might think. The prime example is Sofia Coppola, who, following in her father Francis Ford Coppola, helmed a series of acclaimed films. But there’s also Brandon Cronenberg following his father, the body-horror master David Cronenberg in crafting a directorial career of his own. Now, another child of a famous director takes the reigns herself as Ishana Night Shyamalan, daughter of The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan, helms her feature directorial debut with The Watchers.

Aligned with her father’s penchant for tense and suspenseful films, Ishana Night Shyamalan’s debut feature is fittingly an outing in the horror genre. Dakota Fanning plays the lead character Mina, who lives in Ireland as a way to escape the trauma of her past. After being tasked with transporting a bird to its new owner, Mina finds herself lost in a mysterious and dangerous woods that holds great evil and power. There, she meets fellow travelers, who also found themselves lost in these woods. In addition to being perplexingly difficult to get out of, these woods also harbor a deeper evil. Mysterious creatures come out at night and will kill anyone they can. Mina and her fellow travelers avoid the creatures by seeking refuge in a house, which has a massive window that the monsters use to look upon the travelers. The creatures, termed ‘watchers,’ simply watch Mina and the others in a menacing manner and for initially unknown reasons.

The Watchers review

On the surface, the story is captivating, with a tense and thrilling premise that holds the potential to be adapted into a great horror film (The Watchers is based on a book by AM Stine). For much of the movie, the story largely succeeds; acts one and two do a formidable job in conveying the dangers of the hidden creatures beyond the trees while also introducing the audience to the array of characters desperately tackling a mysterious and dangerous situation. Each of the four characters have their own personality and, as such, hold their own unique weaknesses that leave the group vulnerable and put them in considerable danger. Georgina Campbell’s character, for example, is awaiting the return of her husband, who left to go find help. In a tense scene, the monsters are able to exploit that affection for her spouse as they tempt her to open the bolted metal door that separates the humans from the woods.

These first two acts are shrouded in great mystery and intensity as the creatures’ decisions to watch the humans from the other side of the window scares as much as it intrigues. Inevitably, answers to the questions posed by the film regarding these characters come and, unfortunately, are unsatisfactory. It’s not an exaggeration to say The Watchers collapses in its third act. This is a movie that was advertised as a contained thriller; a story that takes place in one setting, trapping the characters within the woods as the dangers become more and more prevalent. It is just that for two thirds of the film, but the third act takes a wild directional turn. The characters escape the woods and the film slows down to a complete halt, so much so that the audience could be forgiven for expecting the credits to roll at any moment. At this point, the story felt complete, with all the character arcs wrapped up and the heroes home safely.

Then, the strange, and ultimately greatly misguided, turn occurs. The Watchers has a whole other act to go, one that moves beyond the forest and, therefore, removes much of the horror. The monsters (more on them later) simply aren’t scary anymore, even when they’re attacking Dakota Fanning’s Mina. In many ways, it feels as if much of the jeopardy and overarching horror are taken away, so not only does the film become considerably less entertaining, it doesn’t offer the thrills and chills it promised earlier.

The third act could also be described as one giant exposition dump in which the origins of the titular ‘watchers’ are revealed. The explanation behind them, however, is so absurd that it becomes borderline laughable. At one point in the story, the monsters are described as fairies, the type heard in ancient European folklore and mythology. If the filmmakers simply left it at that, The Watchers would be all the better for it. Unfortunately, they opt to expand upon that concept greatly and unnecessarily.

The Watchers review

An entire backstory spanning hundreds of years is introduced, one which explains that humans and fairies used to live side by side. Then, a war occurred, and the latter were banished underground, losing their magical abilities. There’s also the concept of half bloods, those with one human and one fairy parent, with a twist that Madeline, one of the survivors in the woods, is one of these creatures. That twist is revealed in the third act and is ultimately the core reason for the film’s continuation far beyond its welcome. It opens up so many holes in the story (if Madeline was a monster, why was she so fearful of her species? How did she leave the woods on the boat when it was established the fairies couldn’t exit the forest whatsoever). To put it simply, The Watchers descends into madness, falling apart so spectacularly that it feels a real shame that a serviceable horror film, as it was for about an hour, turns so poor so quickly.

That being said, Ishana Night Shyamalan does elevate The Watchers. It’s hard to fault her for the script too much, although she did write the screenplay on her own, as the storyline with the monsters appears more a fault of the book it is based on. Ishana has the same keen eye for visuals and for the dramatic that her father has and shows that she is a more than capable director here. That the overarching story falls short of her strong directorial efforts is a shame given the evident effort and care that went into constructing this film.

VERDICT: 4.5/10

The Watchers is a well-crafted feature directorial debut for Ishana Night Shyamalan that takes the characters and the audience and contains them in a mysterious situation surrounded by creatures whose motives remain a mystery. What initially excels as a tense horror movie ultimately falls apart, much like some of the director’s father’s poorer efforts that similarly deteriorate upon third acts with strange twists and heavy-handed exposition. Bogged down in confusing mythology and illogical explanations, things simply don’t make sense when exposed to any moderate level of scrutiny. After impressing as the director of six episodes of the underappreciated Apple TV+ series Servant, Ishana Night Shyamalan steps into the director’s chair for a theatrical outing, inheriting her father’s keen sense for the suspenseful and, unfortunately, some of his tendency for narrative missteps.

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