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The Watchers Review

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Photo of Dakota Fanning

Dakota Fanning

New Line Cinema

Rated: R

102 Minutes

Directed by: Ishana Night Shyamalan

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell


The Watchers Poster

Any audience that willingly watches a supernatural horror movie has agreed to suspend much real-world disbelief on entering the theater. We are willing to assume that vampires, demons, and ghosts exist and don’t expect a rational explanation every time. Screenwriters can approach their supernatural world in two ways. Sometimes, they say little or nothing about supernatural forces. They’re simply there as an antagonist, just as a large guy with a chainsaw is there in a different type of horror movie. Or the writers can explain the backstory, but in doing so, they risk becoming silly. Ishana Night Shyamalan, the writer/director of The Watchers, chose the latter course. Unfortunately, the explanation raised too many questions, and the plot went off the rails, ruining an excellent performance from star Dakota Fanning.

In The Watchers, Fanning plays Mina, an American woman who goes to Ireland after her mother’s death. She’s consumed with guilt about that death (viewers later learn 

why) and sublimates her artistic talent by working in a pet store and inventing new personalities and looks every night when she picks up men in bars. She agrees to take a parrot to a zoo across the country, but her trip ends abruptly when her car breaks down in a mysterious wooded area. Viewers already know there’s something wrong with these woods because, in a pre-title scene, a panicked man ran through the woods before being dragged away by… something.

Mina also gets lost, but an older woman (Olwen Fouere) sees her and beckons her to go into a small nearby bunker before dark. Once inside what the woman calls the “Coop,” Mina meets two younger people already inside, Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan). The older woman, Madeleine, tells Mina to stand with the three of them in a line facing a large two-way mirror. After it gets dark, they hear noises outside. It’s what Madeleine calls the Watchers, strange creatures watching them. Later, Madeleine tells Mina that the Watchers only come out at night and get very upset if the rules aren’t followed. (I kept thinking of the rules about not feeding Gremlins after midnight.) During the day, the group has been blazing a trail through the woods, going gradually farther so they can eventually escape. The man in the pre-title scene was Ciara’s husband, who eventually got past the end of the blazed part of the trail.

By now, readers of this review, like movie viewers, have many questions beyond who or what the Watchers are. They get a partial answer when Mina is caught outside after dark one night and sees the Watchers staring at the others through the window. Non-spoiler: they look like someone stretched E.T. on a rack until he was eight feet tall, then added big teeth and claws. But the film raises other questions. How do four people forage daily for food in a forest with nothing alive except for a sinister flock of birds they can’t catch? (I thought they would soon eat the parrot, but the plucky parrot, Darwin, survived past Sunday dinner.) How do they cook or bathe in a one-room bunker with only a pot for toileting functions? Why is there a solidly built bunker with a two-way window deep in the woods? How does Madeleine know all these rules?

Viewers eventually get the answers to those questions, usually in the form of clunky information dump monologues by Madeleine. The Watchers is based on a well-reviewed horror novel, so the author might have handled these details better. But the movie was written and directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan. If that name sounds familiar, it should. She is the daughter of M. Night Shyamalan, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Ishana tries to set up the same eerie vibe her father does, but her script lacks his touch. She also tries for one of her father’s trademarked twist endings. That doesn’t work either, because she has to manipulate the plot too much and telegraph the twists along the way.

The movie’s set pieces work well, especially a lengthy segment in which the group finally makes their escape, going past the blazed trail and trying to reach safety before the Watchers can get to them. It’s quite suspenseful, and Shyamalan wisely keeps the camera away from the Watchers. As a result, the group and the audience don’t know how close or where their pursuers are. However, this scene occurs almost a half hour before the end of the movie. Viewers know that, no matter how long the closing credits are, this sequence will not end the film. They’re right, and the rest of The Watchers resembles a slowly deflating balloon.

Most moviegoers believe M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the cinema scene from nowhere with The Sixth Sense. That’s not true. He made two movies before that, the second of which, Wide Awake, had a solid cast with Dana Delany and Robert Loggia and got decent reviews. It also remained in the can for three years before a minimal theatrical release. So, the elder Shyamalan had a learning curve before The Sixth Sense. His daughter does, too. She worked as his second-unit director on Old, a film with its share of spooky moments. Ishana Shyamalan has proved adept at getting good performances from her cast, using sound effectively, and staging suspenseful scenes. But she needs better scripts to make a good film. Ishana has the advantage, thanks to her father who produced The Watchers, of a substantial budget to work with. She might consider getting some screenwriting help with her next movie. Otherwise, there won’t be as many watchers for that film as for The Watchers.  

In this clip, Dakota Fanning encounters the watchers for the first time:

Watch Dakota Fanning on Amazon Prime Video:

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