Now Reading
Dakota Fanning in Ishana Night Shyamalan Debut

Dakota Fanning in Ishana Night Shyamalan Debut

Some of the most boldly assured first features by women in the past 20 years have been horror. Think Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Julia Ducournau’s Raw or Rose Glass’ Saint Maud. On the strength of The Watchers, Ishana Night Shyamalan, the 23-year-old daughter of You Know Who, fails to make that list, despite having what appears to be considerable resources thrown at her. While Dakota Fanning does yeoman’s work in the central role, this is basically the usual Irish hooey about faeries and changelings and other pesky entities dressed up in ponderous Jungian doubles theory.

Produced by dad M. Night Shyamalan and adapted from the novel by West Irish author A.M. Shine (apparently a real name), the movie charges right into its souped-up atmospherics, accompanied by Abel Korzeniowski’s hyperventilating score.

The Watchers

The Bottom Line

Irish folklore has an awful lot to answer for.

Release date: Friday, June 7
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouéré, Oliver Finnegan, Alistair Brammer, John Lynch
Director-screenwriter: Ishana Night Shyamalan, based on the novel by A.M. Shine

Rated PG-13,
1 hour 42 minutes

Eli Arenson’s camera tracks a panicked man (Alistair Brammer), hurtling through a dense forest in the West of Ireland that we’re told doesn’t appear on any map. Creeped out by a flock of CG birds, and by the ominous “Point of No Return” signs he keeps encountering, he makes various attempts to get out. But the sinister chorus of chittering woodland voices familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie set in malevolent nature means escape is unlikely. Already, at this point you know the press notes are going to refer to the forest becoming “its own character.”

The forest is said to draw in lost souls, and we know instantly that Fanning’s Mina qualifies because she works in a Galway pet shop and vapes around the animals. Also, she’s an artist, so duh. Oh, and she can’t let go of her sorrow over her mother’s death 15 years earlier, despite imploring calls from her sister Lucy, who’s later revealed to be a twin. Symbolism alert!

Mina’s boss asks her to deliver a splendid golden parrot to a zoo near Belfast. Before setting out on the drive the next day, she takes the bird home, dons a brunette wig and hits a local pub, picking up a random guy and convincing him she’s a ballerina, visiting from America to perform Swan Lake. Whether Mina’s nightlife disguise has any bearing on the story is debatable. All that matters is that before stepping out, she tells the parrot, “Try not to die,” which is the one phrase it picks up, at least until the writer-director gets bored with that.

Stopping for gas as she’s about to enter the sprawling forest, Mina fails to catch the noticeboard plastered with “Missing Person” info. Her car breaks down soon after and she heads off looking for help as the parrot she later names Darwin croaks, “Try not to die.” After ducking out of the way of that freaky flock of kamikaze CG birds, Mina sees a witchy-looking older woman, Madeleine (Olwen Fouéré), who motions her to follow.

The stranger leads her to a concrete, steel-doored shelter she calls “The Coop,” which she shares with fellow stranded travelers Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan). They inform Mina that woodland creatures known as “The Watchers” come every evening at sunset to observe them until morning as they stand in a line in front of a wall that becomes a mirror. It’s never explained how the Watchers can see through it, but whatever.

Madeline warns that the forest can cause madness-inducing hallucinations and that looking at a Watcher will have the same result. She also says to stay out of the burrows where they hide during daylight hours and never turn your back to the mirror. That last point is stressed as if it’s super-important but is never mentioned again, except in the subtextual doppelgänger sense.

Shyamalan keeps throwing more plot at us without ever building suspense or doing anything particularly scary. That leaves tons of time to wonder about things like how four people living in a concrete bunker and peeing in a bucket keep their hair looking so good. Or when they find time to sleep. Or why Mina looks several years younger in flashbacks than she would have been if her mom died 15 years ago. There are a few tense moments once Mina breaks the rules and the Watchers get pissed, but the big development happens when the corner of a rug is flipped up to reveal a hatch like the one in Lost. “It’s a door!” says Ciara, clearly a genius.

See Also

At least that yields greater insights into exactly what the Watchers are, both in the menacing present and the mythic past. We also get to see more and more of them as the story progresses, from first glimpses of a gnarled hand or snarling mouth to towering humanoid figures that look like Giacometti sculptures.

But all this is only marginally more interesting than the extraneous clips from a cheesy Brit TV reality dating show, the only DVD available to watch in the Coop. We keep telling you people: “Invest in physical media!”

The group’s underground discoveries lead to a breakthrough, which might be mistaken for an anticlimactic ending if not for the fact that Big Twist is the Shyamalan family brand. Also because even though you might feel like you’ve been watching The Watchers for two hours-plus, a glance at your watch will tell you there’s roughly a half-hour to go.

What follows is a load of claptrap about the fey (the plural of faerie folk, don’t you know?) being rendered wingless and feral over the centuries. While stewing in resentment, it seems they’ve also been studying up on new modes of transformation. Mysteries are uncovered and fresh threats unleashed, but by that time, you might have stopped caring.

Shyamalan wrote and directed several episodes of her father’s Apple TV+ series Servant, as well as directing second unit on Old and Knock at the Cabin. She’s technically proficient enough to present a polished-looking film — some second-rate CG work aside — and make darkly mysterious use of terrific locations (primarily Ballinastoe Woods in County Wicklow). One shot is particularly striking, as the camera pulls back to reveal the Coop lit up at night for the Watchers like a theatrical stage.

But unlike the forest, none of these characters really draws you in, even if Fanning is always watchable, Fouéré has a wild-eyed intensity (presumably they couldn’t get Fionnula Flanagan), and John Lynch shows up late to lend some weathered gravitas. Fans of Campbell’s fraught work in Barbarian — a movie that did know how to crank up the frights — will be disappointed by her thankless role here.

The Watchers, sadly, is less disturbing than dull, less harrowing than hackneyed, right down to a closing shot that basically announces, “Never trust a ginger.” Again, duh. As it crawled toward the finish line, all I could think was, “Try not to die.”

Copyright © MetaMedia™ Capital Inc, All right reserved

Scroll To Top