The “Summer of Shyamalan” kicks off with Ishana Night Shyamalan's The Watchers, a misguided mixture of compelling Celtic folk horror and choppy storytelling. In a rare spot of Dewey Cox logic, it's a movie that's both too long and too short. Shyamalan's feature debut boasts a keen directorial eye—shot composition is that of a resourceful veteran—but it's a film at odds. Irish influences grate against predictable horror tropes, diminishing the allure of historical mythology about faes, changelings, and other forest creatures that may or may not be gathering outside a double-sided window that provides no answers (at first).

Dakota Fanning stars as Mina, an American woman hiding from the world amidst Galway's anonymity. She's tasked with transporting a parrot from the pet shop where she's employed to a client, but gets lost in a dense western Ireland forest along the way. After some wandering, the afternoon turns to nightfall, and Mina encounters Madeline (Olwen Fouéré)—who instructs Mina to sprint for a heavy iron door she's about to close. Mina's welcomed into “The Coop," where Madeline, Ciara (Georgina Campbell), and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) are observed nightly from the other side of an aquarium-sided viewing glass: no visibility, no answers, just the same repetitive rules keeping everyone alive.

It's difficult to deny the alluring mystery of what Mina has stumbled upon. Shyamalan follows in her father's footsteps by embracing the unknown as a tantalizing storytelling device. Madeline barks lessons like gospel that Mina has to believe, shrouding us in the same supernatural confusion that influences characters. The Watchers is a puzzle-box concept that invites viewers to exhaustively ponder hows and whys, which Shyamalan doesn't waste. Cinematographer Eli Arenson shoots the film like a predator stalking prey, the camera frequently approaching Madeline or Mina from behind, concealing shadow-lurking creatures so our imaginations run rampant with nasty thoughts.

Unfortunately, The Watchers isn't as successful when answering plotted questions. Mina's captivity within an endless wilderness inhabited by seemingly ferocious entities turns into something far more generic than the idea of a deadly zoo for humans. Symbolism is on the nose—Mina carries her bird, Darwin, who's trapped in a cage, like her—while terror never reaches a banshee's howl. Shyamalan's execution outside picturesque imagery is otherwise pedestrian, especially when trying to scare us senseless. It's more akin to Antlers, a folkloric horror film lacking the whole horror element (kinda important).

To that point, The Watchers makes a hopeful first impression—then it's all downhill. Actors aren't giving bad performances, but a listlessness and one-notedness remind us of the better performances Dakota Fanning or Georgina Campbell have delivered. Special effects aren't unspeakably janky, but they're not very impressive either, whether digitizing remarkably unblended green screen backgrounds or "The Watchers" once revealed. Then there's the ending—or what should have been the end. Shyamalan loses control after her film's first climax, passes right by the natural finishing spot, and continues with an unshakably Mama-like outro that kills whatever momentum exists.

It's such a shame because the film's promise is evident—it just slowly deflates and is entirely squandered in the third act. Shyamalan exhibits all the traits of a confident director but cannot close with the same enthusiasm. I'm more excited about what comes next than what I just watched. You could cut a fantastic sizzle reel out of The Watchers, but when trying to make sense of the complete package, those standout highs deteriorate in quality when surrounded by Shyamalan's shakier writing and muted execution.

I can't answer if The Watchers faithfully adapts A. M. Shine's novel of the same name, but I can confirm that Shyamalan rises and stumbles throughout her debut. The film's crisp camerawork, robust presence, and chest-puffed posture are well above novice levels. The film's wavy continuity, bland performances, and sluggish pacing leave a forgettable mark. The Watchers is steeped in Irish lore yet lacks identity, which is the ultimate shame. Shyamalan doesn't shy away from her family's cryptic filmmaking values, which will no doubt pay off in the future with more experience under her belt—but that doesn’t excuse the present.

Movie Score: 2.5/5

  • Matt Donato
    About the Author - Matt Donato

    Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Critics Choice Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.