A New Shyamalan Watches The Watchers, But Doesn’t Bring Them to Life

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A New Shyamalan Watches The Watchers, But Doesn’t Bring Them to Life

One of the best things about filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is his abiding curiosity about how elements of horror, fantasy and science fiction can be endlessly mixed and matched. All of his films are genre exercises, and at the same time, none of them are; lacking that straightforwardness, it’s not uncommon for them to switch from scary to funny to baffling, sometimes within the space of a single scene. This combined with his Rod Serling-ish tendencies should make him an ideal genre producer, too – an area where he might have more closely imitated Steven Spielberg, the director whose work his was often compared to early on. But like Jordan Peele, another distinctive mixmaster, Shyamalan’s few producer-only projects have resembled his own work without matching it. It was true of Devil, intended as the first in a series of Shyamalan-produced supernatural horror tales that never got off the ground, and it’s true of The Watchers, written and directed by his daughter, Ishana, from the novel by A.M. Shine.

You hate to use a young woman’s directorial debut as an occasion to tick off resemblances to her famous father, but with the more established Shyamalan’s name on the production (he was not only producer, but second unit director for some of the film), The Watchers practically demands it. Mina (Dakota Fanning) appears to be sleepwalking through her life, numb with some combination of ennui and grief, not unlike the Bruce Willis character in Unbreakable; she winds up lost in mysterious woods that may be populated by monsters, not unlike the environment depicted in The Village; and wakes up in a small building trapped with a small group of strangers, not unlike the spartan set-ups for Split or Knock at the Cabin. Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) seem similarly disoriented by the one-room building with one wall made entirely of glass, but Madeline (Olwen Fouéré) has been there longer and explains, sort of: Some beings known as “the watchers” are out in the forest. The quartet may roam around during the day, but once night falls, they must return to the house – “the coop,” they call it – and lock themselves in, or else they’ll face a horrific death.

This will not be the first time The Watchers offers a laborious yet still-vague description of what appears to be happening in the movie; there are exposition dumps at regular intervals. (At one point, we and the characters watch not just one explanatory video, but a series of them, as if receiving training for our new job: Understanding the plot of The Watchers.) Though some of the lore drops are entertaining, particularly when they interrupt the not-so-scary scare scenes, Shyamalan hews too closely to the movie’s folkloric qualities with self-conscious storytelling, muffling the characters’ humanity in the process. The material designed to serve as the The Watchers‘ grounding force – a canned childhood trauma for Mina – feels as contrived and ham-fisted as any of its mythology, with Fanning delivering most of her lines in a narcotized hush.

There’s a deliberately and sometimes interestingly artificial quality to all of this, especially when Shyamalan emphasizes the proscenium-like framing of the characters at their gigantic window, with the uniformly yellow-orange lighting of the coop contrasting with the dusky appearance of the forest outside. It gives The Watchers the feeling of a dark-hued pop-up book. But this also renders a few standout details as ostentatiously moving forward, while much of the rest stays resolutely and flatly page-bound. (Presumably at least some of them derive from the source novel.)

The mysterious woods are in Ireland, with a displaced Mina as the only American in the group, but little comes of it beyond a generic haze of alienation (and some wonderful accents from Fanning’s co-stars). Speaking of generic alienation: Early on, the blonde Mina dons a brunette wig, seemingly to pick up a man at a local bar, dismissed by Mina herself as “just something I do sometimes,” without any further comment, development or even faint echo elsewhere in the movie. (It’s not even clear whether her “something” is limited to conversation or includes actual seduction, but any true carnality feels pretty remote from this movie’s version of horror-fantasy.) Also, Mina has a sister named Lucy, but if there’s a reason for the Dracula connection beyond the broadest gothic-horror heading, I wasn’t able to discern it.

The strangest touches in The Watchers bring to mind the increasingly prominent and distinctive Shyamalan sense of humor – as well as Iron Man 2, with which The Watchers competes for the title of Most Unexpectedly High Volume of Dialogue With or About a Pet Bird. There’s room in the horror space for a movie like this – a daft campfire tale best told in the damp morning after, part creature feature and part noodling about the nature of humanity. The Watchers may even find an enthusiastic sleepover audience, with its endearing PG-13 spookiness. But unlike other Shyamalan forays into the uncanny, it’s more functional than fully formed.

Director: Ishana Night Shyamalan
Writer: Ishana Night Shymalan
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Olwen Fouéré, Georgia Campbell, Oliver Finnegan
Release Date: June 7, 2024

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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