‘The Watchers’ Review: Ishana Night Shyamalan Directs a Glossy Woodland Horror Thriller. The Twist? The Film Is More Promising Than Good

The Watcher
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Watchers” is the first film directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan, the 24-year-old daughter of M. Night Shyamalan. Its title refers to a race of spindly ash-gray monsters who haunt an Irish woods, gathering at night around a concrete fortress where the film’s four characters have holed up in a state of semi-permanent refuge. The building has just one room, an entire wall of which is a two-way mirror through which the Watchers peer, all because..they like to watch.

At the same time, the title could almost be referring to anyone who will watch this movie with eyes on the inevitable question of how much of a chip off the old Shyamalan block it is. Is “The Watchers” a glossy/clever mystery horror thriller? Yes. Did Ishana Night Shyamalan, whose father is one of the producers, write the movie as well as direct it? Yes (though she adapted it from a 2022 novel by A.M. Shine). Is it derivative of many other movies and tropes? Yes, at least if you count “The Birds,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Predator,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and dozens of anonymous night-world creature features. Does it have a twist ending? Yes, though the “twist” goes on for about 20 minutes and seems to include two or three separate twists (which kind of tamps down on the twisty fun of it all). Is I. Night Shyamalan a filmmaker with a future or a one-shot nepo baby?

The jury is still out. For a while, “The Watchers” is a reasonably well-made lost-in-the-woods horror movie, one that draws you in like a puzzle whose rules you need to learn (just as the characters do). Shyamalan’s only previous credit is directing six episodes of the Apple series “Servant,” but she has learned her craft.

Mina (Dakota Fanning), who vapes her way through her job at a pet store in Galway, is asked to deliver a talking orange parrot to a client in Belfast. During the trip, she drives through a sinister forest full of trees with tall straight thin trunks, only to get out and discover that her car has vanished, and that she’s now trapped. In the prelude sequence, we’ve already seen someone get sucked into a hole in the ground of this woods; we also saw a sign that says “Point of no return” coupled with a mysterious numeral (108).

Mina soon spies an older woman with white hair who’s beckoning her to come to the house in the middle of the woods. She does, and enters. The white-haired woman is named Madeleine, and she’s kind of the mistress of ceremonies. The Irish actress Olwen Fouéré conjures up the image of Galadriel from “The Lord of the Rings” as played by Sir Ben Kingsley. She’s an impishly imperious den mother of the macabre.

Madeleine, a former professor of folklore, lays down the law, and there are plenty of them. At night, the characters must stand in a line in front of the mirror, so that the Watchers can gawk at them. During the day, they’re allowed to go outside, but can’t go past those “Point of no return” signs. They can’t go into the holes (though Mina, at one point, does, emerging with an old bicycle and several other artifacts). Yet even as I was trying to get the hang of the situation, I kept thinking of other, more basic questions, like: Where do the characters sleep? (The only furniture in the room is a red leather armchair and a lamp.) What do they eat? (There’s a reference to hunting, and we see a crow being killed, but the movie doesn’t get more specific than that.) And how do they pass the time without Wi-Fi?

Because, you see, they have been stuck in this house, known as the Coop, for a while. The brash Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) has been there for eight months, the more circumspect Ciara (Georgina Campbell) has been there for five months (it turns out her that her husband, John, disappeared — he was the victim in the opening scene), and Madeleine seems like she’s been there forever. She runs the place with an iron hand, so we know there’s more to her than meets the eye. Are these woodland survivors a cult that she’s the secret leader of?

Mina has a backstory of trauma, involving the death of her mother 15 years ago. It seems that she was not a well-behaved girl, and that she was acting up in the back seat of the car when her mother, trying to deal with her, smashed into another vehicle. So young Mina was responsible for her mother’s death. The reason this is relevant is that it connects with the backstory of the Watchers. They’re a race of fallen elves (or something), who covet humanity, but the more we learn about them the less interesting they become. That’s in part because they’re envisioned as tall, scaly-skinned beasts who scuttle around with that amplified liquid percussive sound that makes you go, “Oh, it’s Predator!” Not a lot of mystery there.

Ishana Night Shyamalan’s direction is mostly fine. Her screenplay is mostly a series of gambits piled on top of one another, adding up to a horror-movie crockpot, one that grows less creepy and effective as it goes along. We don’t have any great investment in the characters, and by the time we discover the bunker hidden under the fortress, where a professor (John Lynch) first went to study the Watchers, the film has begun to grow top-heavy with its mythology. Of course, it’s also a problem that if you’re going to play the busy and derivative mainstream-horror game, you’ve got to deliver, as in jump scares or moments that make the audience shiver in, you know, horror. “The Watchers” is too restrained for all that; it wants to be a kind of fairy tale. In this case, though, there’s too much impeccable pretension and not enough things that go bump in the Shyamalan night.

From Variety US