‘The Watchers’ Review: Ishana Shyamalan’s Debut Promises More Mystery Than It Can Deliver

Kevin Taft reviews The Watchers, the debut film from Ishana Night Shyamalan, who sets up more good ideas than the film chooses to explore, entertaining as it may be.
User Rating: 6.5

Following in her father’s footsteps, Ishana Shyamalan certainly comes from the same pedigree. She has a bit of visual panache and can set up an intriguing premise. But like many of her father’s weaker efforts, her first film, The Watchers, doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Based on the book by A.M. Shine, Shyamalan has source material to work with, so she didn’t come up with the idea on her own. This is probably a good step for a fledgling filmmaker who will undoubtedly be compared to her hit-or-miss dad.

However, like the Cronenberg and Lynch children, the film seems to be a pale imitation of her parent’s previous work.

A part of me was hoping Ishana Shyamalan would learn from her father’s oeuvre and improve on it. That’s not the case, but to be fair, it’s not bad. It’s a mildly entertaining creature feature with enough mystery to keep you invested.

See Also: ‘Knock at the Cabin’ Review: To Avert Disaster, Shyamalan Shines

The story centers on Mina (Dakota Fanning), a depressed young woman who is only able to get out of her skin when she dons a wig and goes to the local Irish pub to pick up guys while pretending to be someone else. Her real life is haunted by the death of her mother and her inability to get over it.

Working at a pet store, she is tasked to bring a rare yellow parakeet to a client a far distance away. She takes the assignment without hesitation and heads to the destination the following day.

But once she passes through a heavily forested area, her car and phone break down, leaving her stranded in the middle of nowhere. Soon enough, masses of birds start screeching and flying away just as darkness falls on the day. Strange sounds come from deep within the forest, and before you can say “boo,” an old woman is yelling for her to run into a cabin inexplicably placed in the middle of the woods.

That woman is Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), one of three people who have been trapped in a one-room cabin with minimal furnishings for months. The others are quiet Clara (Georgina Campbell) and suspicious Daniel (Oliver Finnegan).

Mina is told that there are creatures in the woods that come out at sundown, so they have to barricade themselves in the cabin. But there are also rules that they have to follow, or else.

At night, the window that takes up one entire side of the cabin turns into a mirror, blocking the view of the forest. There, the watchers allegedly view them from the outside until sunrise. So one of the rules is that they can’t turn their back on the mirror. They also can’t stay out when it’s dark. And they can’t go into the holes where the Watchers live.

As the devil-may-care sort, Mina decides to break a few rules, which is when things go from bad to awful.

The crux of the story is to find out what the Watchers really are, find a way to escape the twisty-turny forest before sundown, and escape the woods altogether.

Fanning is quite good here, quietly letting us into a character who is not only depressed but also defiant in her inability to care about her life. She’s willing to take risks because she has nothing to lose. Always a perceptive actress, Fanning brings depth to the performance needed in a film where atmosphere and mystery take center stage over characters.

There are characters here, of course, but they are never fully fleshed out. We don’t find out enough about Madeline, Clara, or Daniel so it’s hard to care about them. We need to feel a connection to them, and maybe in the book, they have more life, but on screen, they just feel like archetypes.

As for Shyamalan, she uses sound really well and keeps whatever is out in the woods in shadows for most of the film. This is effective and offers some really cool visuals. The problem is that so many interesting things are brought up, but they are never explored. For example, Mina’s desire to become other people might mirror aspects of the story, but her psyche would have been worth exploring more.

Also, several easy plot machinations seemed to be glossed over just to keep the movie going.

At only an hour and forty-two minutes, the film does feel long. It’s not really boring, but once you think the movie is over, it goes on for another twenty minutes. I was glad because I wanted the film to make more of an impact, but aside from a few twists (that you may or may not see coming), the finale isn’t all that haunting.

Don’t get me wrong, there is some entertainment value here, and Shyamalan has some talent. This is just a moderate effort that implies it is going to be weirder and more mysterious than it actually ends up being.

Should you watch “The Watchers?” Sure. Will you remember The Watchers? Probably not.

The Watchers is now playing in theaters.

Written by
Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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