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Sunday, June 16, 2024

‘The Watchers’ Knows That Scariness Should Be Subtle

In 2006, the director M. Night Shyamalan attempted to swerve away from the tense thrillers he’d become known for. His new movie was an ambitious, expansive fairy tale called Lady in the Water—an original conceit based on bedtime stories he’d concocted for his young children. That film, a dizzy mix of whimsy and horror about a mermaid-like creature who appears in an apartment building’s swimming pool, was largely jeered at the time. But I couldn’t help thinking about it after seeing The Watchers, the filmmaking debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan, one of M. Night’s daughters and a very commendable protégé.

The Watchers is also a fairy tale of sorts, similarly blended with modern angst and set in contemporary times. Based on a novel by the Irish horror writer A. M. Shine, The Watchers may not claim direct inspiration from M. Night’s bedtime stories, but Ishana’s movie finds a more careful balance between the freaky and the mundane, delivering a small-scale creepfest. In a moment when successful horror films have trended nastier and more visceral, The Watchers is a spooky PG-13 drama that is light on gore and jump scares, but sets a proper mood and maintains it throughout.

Not to invoke the elder Shyamalan when considering this film would be a struggle, given the way that Ishana is approaching the genre. M. Night broke out as a household name with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, which also leaned into more traditional storytelling, closer to a Victorian ghost novella than a grungy, gory affair. Ishana, who was a second unit director on her father’s previous two features, clearly learned a few tricks working with him. The Watchers is carefully paced, character-focused, and quite sincerely emotional, interested less in the manner of the scares and more in how they’re affecting the ensemble gathered in the woods.

The film follows Mina (played by Dakota Fanning), a wayward artist sifting through her family traumas who goes on a trip to rural Ireland, where she mysteriously winds up in a woodland that she seemingly can’t escape from. That might sound like the simplest horror premise imaginable, but The Watchers doesn’t keep anything simple. Mina stumbles across a trio of other trapped travelers, who guide her to a modern-looking bunker built of thick metal, except for one wall of floor-to-ceiling two-way mirrors. Some of the house’s rules are explained: You can explore in the daytime, but you have to get back to the bunker before nightfall, and then you have to stand in front of the mirror to be, well, watched.

Who’s doing the watching? Unclear, though it’s obviously the same mysterious forces making the forest impossible to escape. Why was the house built, and why does it protect against said forces? Where does everyone go in the daytime? The Watchers is hazy at first, then dutifully answers each question, laying out a long chain of weirdo logic that holds up under the established rules. Now, I love rules generally when it comes to world-building, but it’s particularly satisfying to watch a horror movie that makes sense, even when its premise is fundamentally daffy. Shyamalan has particular fun with Mina and her companions being observed, a necessarily static and visually unstimulating experience that nonetheless builds real tension.

Besides Fanning, the cast includes Georgina Campbell (who was great as the lead of Barbarian, another carefully plotted bit of twisty horror), Oliver Finnegan, and the Irish theater vet Olwen Fouéré, who plays the oldest and most guarded member of the group, dispensing information with the correct level of portentous intrigue. The ensemble is solid and unshowy, but the film’s biggest star is probably the Irish woods where it’s set—the kind of pitch-perfect location that functions as more of a special effect than whatever you might create on a computer.

The last act is where The Watchers reminded me the most of Lady in the Water, as the movie finally unveils what’s going on with Mina’s tormentors. But where Lady in the Water at times suffers under the weight of its own ambition, The Watchers stays focused; there’s no grand meta twist. As with many an M. Night Shyamalan movie, to say more would spoil things completely—and Ishana seems a worthy heir, for reasons beyond how she earns the ending.

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