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The Hollwyood Insider The Watchers Review, Dakota Fanning, M. Night Shyamalan, Ishana Night Shyamalan

New to theaters, ‘The Watchers’, was adapted from a novel by A.M. Shine, and is the film debut of writer and director Ishana Night Shyamalan. The film stars actors: Dakota Fanning (Mina), Georgina Campbell (Ciara), Olwen Fouéré (Madeline), and Oliver Finnegan (Daniel). ‘The Watchers’ delivers an eerie and suspenseful atmosphere with solid performances, though it leans more on suspense than outright horror. The main antagonist within the film involves the peculiar beings that live in the forest, in which four scared strangers have found themselves trapped. The deadly creatures that are natural inhabitants of the forest only come out once the sun sets, but the characters find refuge in a peculiar, multi-faceted cabin “The Coop” with a two-way mirror where the creatures gather at night to observe them. Mina, lost in the woods on her way to work, becomes the latest addition to the captured crew and learns that they are expected to line up at night, in front of the mirror, and await the eerie applause of the unseen beings. It feels as though the characters become a nightly spectacle for these mysterious watchers, heightening the film’s chilling sense of constant surveillance. 

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The Storyline

The plot sets up Mina’s journey into the woods with a seemingly innocuous task: her boss asks her to deliver a parrot to a zoo near Belfast. The night before, she takes the bird home and, in a moment of dark humor, tells it, “Try not to die,” a phrase the parrot picks up and repeats throughout the first half of the film. That same night, Mina dresses herself, puts on a brunette wig and heads to a local pub, where she convinces a random man she’s a ballerina from visiting from America to perform Swan Lake. While it’s debatable whether Mina’s nightlife activities have any relevance to the storyline, she ends up going home alone, blissfully unaware of the troubles that await her the next day.

As Mina sets out to make the delivery, she stops for gas before entering the woods and fails to notice the pinboard plastered with “Missing Person” posters and information. Along the drive, her car breaks down. As she gets out to search for help, the parrot, which she names Darwin, eerily croaks, “Try not to die.” This chilling remark sets up a suspenseful scene where Mina narrowly avoids being trampled by a flock of birds, only to look up and see an enigmatic older woman, Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), motioning for her to follow. The stranger leads her to “The Coop,” where she meets Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan). Madeline, the longest captive in the forest, enlightens Mina and the audience about the crucial rules for their survival: don’t turn your back to the window, don’t go out after dark, don’t go to the burrow (where “the watchers” live), and everyone must be inside before sunset. With these rules established early on, the audience embarks on a tense journey as the four captives continuously attempt to escape their eerie predicament.

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Breaking Rules

These rules are key concepts to remember throughout the film. During their captivity, various events unfold, heightening the tension. In one instance, Mina and a gullible Daniel venture into the forbidden burrow to retrieve stolen items. In another, Mina and Madeline are locked out of the cabin by an unstable Daniel, forcing them to hide in the forest for part of the night. The crew also grapples with determining whether a voice at the door belongs to Ciara’s missing husband or one of the watchers, capable of mimicking human voices and appearances. The forest breeds paranoia and hallucinations, which causes the group to occasionally turn on each other, and instills fear in those who attempt to escape, creating a pervasive sense of dread and distrust.

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Direction and Cinematography

The direction and cinematography of the film are quite straightforward, with 80% of the scenes set in the woods and a cabin. This simplicity makes the storyline smoother to follow. In a pivotal scene where Mina becomes trapped in the woods, we see her phone, GPS, and car stereo glitch, prompting her to pull over and investigate. As she searches for help, she struggles and eventually decides to return to her car, only to find it mysteriously vanished. Although this is a horror/fantasy film, the lack of detail regarding the car’s disappearance could have been executed and explained better. In another scene, the group uncovers a hatch beneath the rug in the Coop, with Ciara exclaiming, “It’s a door!”. This discovery leads to another thirty minutes of plot development, which some audiences might mistake for an inadequate ending. The movie also features an engaging twist, the type of twist you anticipate and long for in a film, but it is poorly executed. The film’s promising start progressively loses momentum as the plot unfolds, and adding more detail and development to the twist could have significantly enhanced the overall impact. A deeper storyline would not only keep the audience on the edge of their seats but also provide a truly mind-blowing experience. Despite its strong direction, the film ultimately falls short, leaving viewers wanting a better explanation, more substance, and cohesion.

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Questioning Moments

As the plot thickens throughout the film, it fails to deliver the suspense or thrills it promises, giving viewers ample time to notice and critique small yet significant inconsistencies. For instance, how do the three long-term captives living in a single-room cabin for months manage to appear so clean and put together? How have they all survived on the birds Daniel struggles to hunt? Why does Mina look so young in flashbacks, if she’s 28 years old and her mom died 15 years ago?  Even mundane questions like when they find time to sleep. Despite new discoveries and fresh issues continually emerging, the film lacks the visual and narrative depth needed to drive the story forward compellingly. This shortfall leaves the audience more focused on critiquing the film rather than enjoying the intended suspenseful journey.

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Despite these critiques, Ishana Night Shyamalan did a commendable job directing her first thriller, even if it leaned more towards suspense than genuine thrills. As the daughter of renowned director M. Night Shyamalan, known for films like ‘The Visit‘ and the screenplay for ‘Stuart Little,’ Ishana is carving her own path in the film industry. Her potential in the horror genre is evident, and it will be intriguing to see how she expands and develops her future projects. With growth, she could make a significant impact in the world of horror cinema.

Cast: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouéré, Oliver Finnegan, Alistair Brammer, John Lynch | Director-Screenwriter: Ishana Night Shyamalan | Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Ashwin Rajan, Nimitt Mankad | Executive producers: Jo Homewood, Stephen Dembitzer | Music: Abel Korzeniowski 

By Kaili Spooner

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