Review: ‘The Watchers’ is light on scares but heavy on sentiment

Film adaptation of best-selling horror novel spends too much time explaining things

Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 102 mis.
When: Fri., June 7
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Rating: NN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: The Watchers will give you a clear idea of what’s wrong with contemporary horror movies.

THIS WRITER’S big takeaway from The Watchers? There’s always gotta be a dead mom.

Many critics will likely use their review of the directorial debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan to compare the film to the work of her household name father, M. Night Shaymalan (and lob a few “nepo baby” jabs in the process). But it’s probably a lot more instructive to situate the film in the context of modern horror cinema and even literature since this movie is an unfortunate case of psychological realism and overly explanatory plotting, which have plagued the form in recent years. Based on a 2022 gothic novel by A.M. Shine (which is receiving a sequel later this year), you can tell the source material was the kind of corny airport bestseller written with the purpose of being turned into a movie in the first place.

Our hero is Mina (Dakota Fanning), comically introduced vaping behind the counter at her seemingly dull pet store job in Dublin. Upfront about the fact that she’s feeling mopey about the 15th anniversary of her mother’s death (learning to accept it will be the journey of her character, of course), another boring day on the job eventually takes her to the spooky forest to deliver a parrot. Her car breaks down, though, and she soon realizes there’s something spooky afoot in the forest. Luckily, she’s taken in by Madeline (Olwen Fouere), the leader of sorts of a group that also includes Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Oliver (Daniel Finnegan). Something very bizarre is afoot among them. Every night, Madeline makes the group turn to the glass window in their elaborate modernist home to face a group of creatures called the Watchers, who pose a unique shape-shifting threat that will be greatly elaborated on throughout the film.

It was easy to detect some promise in the first act when the threat of the titular Watchers seemed shrouded in invisibility. Yet the film eventually comes to not trust the audience enough, revealing the creatures as janky computer-generated beasties in the mould of A Quiet Place or I Am Legend. And, of course, they also have deeper psychological ties to the characters, which leads to all potential suspense dissipating.

While the film is a competently put-together studio-wide release — with a number of nice compositions and the impressive production design of the forest compound — it’s still lacking in anything surprising or genuinely unnerving. It especially fumbles the bag in the third act, where it feels less like an adaptation of a horror novel and more like a bad young adult title, both in growing too literal and sentimental. A climax where Mina literally has to blurt out the affirmation that she’s a “good person” led to any goodwill towards the film going out the window on this writer’s end. While I wouldn’t be soon to write off the directorial career of Ishana Night Shyamalan, one certainly hopes she can pick better source material next time.