The Watched (2024)

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Directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan

Like father, like daughter. After directing episodes of her dad’s show, Servant, Ishana Night Shyamalan makes her feature-length debut with this twisty, supernatural thriller that takes an intriguing situation and asks what the heck is happening. Based upon the novel The Watchers, by A. M. Shine (I have no idea why it’s renamed in the UK and Ireland) is a horror set mostly in the thick Irish woodlands. Mia is running an errand, taking a golden parrot to a zoo across the border, when her car breaks down at the treeline. She goes to look for help and finds herself stuck inside a large structure with a one-way window called The Coop. There, she and three strangers, who also found themselves stranded, need to line up every night for an unseen audience of creatures. These monsters emerge from the earth to observe their captive humans, who remain safe as long as they stick to the rules: stay out of their burrows, never turn their backs to the mirror, and don’t go out after dark. Unfortunately, they are hours away from civilization, and with winter approaching, the days are getting shorter.

It’s an intriguing premise, and though its focus on unseen monsters, deep woodlands, and a list of rules has more than a passing resemblance to The Village, there’s enough mystery to keep viewers engaged. Having read the book, I knew where it was going (though plaudits to Night Shyamalan for sharpening a couple of the contrived plot beats and addressing some of its holes), though I was surprised at how lightweight the script was. The set-up of characters with nothing to do but sit together in a single room could be done as a slow-burning semi-chamber piece that gradually ups the paranoia – exploring their fear of both the things outside and the people they are stuck inside with. Unfortunately, the group dynamics are not engaging, lacking the attention to detail or nuance necessary to bring the situation to life. Like how zombie movies need a good group of survivors, we should feel invested in the people we’re stuck in the room with. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is clumsy to the point of distraction. Much of the second half sees Mina moving between exposition dumps that often more resemble the words of NPCs in video games than fully-fledged characters in a movie.

The ensemble’s tensions escalate when the story demands it, and for all the time that’s meant to pass, we do not get to know them. Heck, I was probably more invested in the parrot getting away than any of the humans. There are still some stakes, though, and the main cast does well with underdeveloped roles – particularly Dakota Fanning and Georgina Campbell, who you may remember from Barbarian. However, their backing stories are explained very briefly, shoe-horned in via hit-and-run scenes before the next lengthy discussion about the rules. On that point, we learn so much information but get little sense of why it matters to anyone. This means that while The Watched is almost bursting with lore, the world-building remains fairly shallow, giving us breadth without depth. I get that it’s an adaptation, though the best writers can take the book as a foundation and develop the bits they are most fond of. It’s notable that one of the most exciting scenes, which involves a bike, is also a new one. Still, dramatically and thematically, Night Shyamalan has replicated the novel but in a way that feels like a summary rather than a companion piece that can enrich its source material.

Some of the visual parallels to Mina’s situation are almost comically blunt: caged animals, reality TV stars, and a couple of motifs I won’t go into as they’d lead to spoilers. Needless to say, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of symbolism will gauge roughly where it’s going in a way they wouldn’t necessarily with the less overt source material. On that, as you might guess by the Night Shyamalan billing, there’s a sting in the tale, but the delivery is so longwinded that it robs it of the impact it could have. It’s all a bit unfortunate as, pacing aside, she shows her potential as a director. Both the setting and the monsters look striking, the trickery involving the wall-sized mirror is impressive, and though I don’t think she takes adequate time to establish the mood, she captures the characters’ helplessness. The dense, uncharted forest is enough to viewers at ease, and there are a couple of horror scenes where she raises the tension. To be fair, for a debut it looks impressively slick. With the right collaborators she may be able to deliver the goods next time. Her dad’s CV has shown that even though a filmmaker doesn’t get it right every time, they can still make something special. Perhaps we’ll see her Sixth Sense yet, though The Watched is a mediocre telling of a good story.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

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About david.s.smith 456 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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