The Watchers Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Courtesy of Universal

The Shyamalan name is synonymous with the horror genre. Everyone knows M. Night’s The Sixth Sense and the ending he devised that remains one of the greatest in film history. Now, another Shyamalan takes her place behind the camera. After spending time as a second unit director on Old and Knock at the Cabin, and as director of six episodes of Servant, Ishana Night Shyamalan takes the reins in The Watchers. Based on the novel of the same name, The Watchers is Shyamalan’s horror-thriller about the human experience. Like some of her father’s works, it’s the ending of The Watchers that doesn’t fully seal the deal.

There’s a forest in western Ireland that’s not on any map. It has a way of drawing lost souls into its darkness, and those who enter don’t come out. Mina (Dakota Fanning) finds her way into this forest purely by accident. She works at a pet shop in Galway and is tasked with delivering a rare bird to a zoo in Dublin. Her GPS takes her down a long, windy road and through the woods where her car, phone, and all electronics suddenly stop working. While on foot, Mina comes across an older woman, Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), who ushers her into a concrete building called The Coop. Inside are a young man (Oliver Finnegan) and a young woman (Georgina Campbell) who instruct Mina to stand in front of the one-way mirrors so The Watchers can see all of them. The Watchers, Mina is told, are a group of violent creatures who want to observe these captives. Madeline gives Mina a list of rules to survive by, but Mina is determined to find a way home and out of the woods.

The group stands in front of the mirror in The Coop
Courtesy of Universal

The worldbuilding Shyamalan does to open The Watchers is extremely immersive. From the deep, dark, neverending woods to the crackling echolocation-type sounds made by The Watchers, there’s an unnerving air that settles over the first half of the film. In a theater, the screams and sounds of The Watchers bounce around all the speakers, giving the audience the impression that they’re as trapped as the characters in the film. Just as they’re confined in The Coop, Shylamalan makes the dark room of the movie theater feel like a prison of sorts for her audience. The sparse set design of The Coop and the rules Madeline establishes for this mysterious forest only elevate the foreboding nature of the film.

It takes about an hour for the audience to get a good look at one of The Watchers. In anticipation of the reveal, Shyamalan teases the audience. Her camera lingers on the gloomy forest, forcing those watching to squint and allow their minds to play tricks on them in the shadows. Shyamalan pays homage to her father and his famous first glimpse of an alien in Signs with grainy, VHS tape footage of a Watcher. It’s a thrilling moment, one that takes the audience’s breath away and sends a shiver down their spines.

For a good while, everything’s adding up to a spine-chilling flick, but the feeling doesn’t last. Shyamalan is going for an elevated horror with deeper themes at work. Without giving away the twist (because there is a twist, like father like daughter), The Watchers wants to make a grand statement about humanity and our unique ability to fluctuate between good and evil. In a way, the film feels like it has roots in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both share the sentiment that humans are plagued with terrible feelings like jealousy, rage, and pain, but there’s also the other end of the spectrum. Joy, love, and community make life worth going through.

The group stands in front of a marker
Courtesy of Universal

The Watchers is missing a key link to really drive this theme home. Once the audience learns the truth behind the creatures, more questions are raised. The backstories of the characters are awkwardly revealed through exposition, and that’s all the development we’re given. For this theme about the spectrum of the human experience to work, the audience needs to see the characters grow from the pain in their past. As is the case with many horror movies, each character has their own demon they’re running from, but the film never lets them face it, which makes for a stagnant narrative.

There’s enough in The Watchers to make for a good time at the multiplex. Few horror movies in recent memory have done such a quick job of immersing the audience into an unnatural, menacing world, but it’s the ending that leaves something to be desired. It’s clear that Shyamalan has an eye of her own, and perhaps her own Sixth Sense is on the horizon.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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