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The Watched (15)

Director: Ishana Shyamalan
Screenplay: Ishana Shyamalan, A.M. Shine

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouere

Running time: 102 minutes

Cinema release

Review: David Stephens

Yes. It’s The Watched in the UK and Ireland and The Watchers nearly everywhere else. This is bizarre as it’s closely based on the novel by Irish author A.M. Shine called (you’ve guessed it) The Watchers. And know what the reason is for the name change? Apparently…according to a nameless production source from Warners Bros… some group testing found that UK/Ireland based viewers were confusing the film with Ryan Murphy series The Watcher on Netflix. We don’t know if that’s really true, but it sounds dumb enough to be something that a mainstream film studio would do. Cool move Bros. Anyway, As promotional material is eager to tell us, Watchers/Watched is Ishana Shyamalan's (daughter of you-know-who) feature-length directorial debut, after working in the same capacity on 6 episodes of Servant. With Dakota Fanning and Georgina Campbell (Barbarian) in lead roles, the filming got a mulligan from the SAG strike in 2023, allowing it to complete the schedule as intended in the attractive settings of Dublin, Wicklow, and Galway. Now showing on big screens in the UK and US (albeit with different titles), it would be nice to see if it’s a load of old blarney or not.


It starts with a man running through the woods, desperate to leave the area before the sun sets (no, they haven’t screened an episode of From by mistake). Failing miserably, he falls prey to something off-camera. Cut to Mina (Fanning), an American in Galway who works in a pet shop. She is tormented by a childhood incident which resulted in the death of her mother, leading to her having some curious traits and a distant personality. Nevertheless, she is asked by her boss to transport a parrot to a zoo (as you do), and she sets out welcoming the distraction so that she can avoid speaking to her twin sister. Unfortunately, she (and the parrot) get stuck in an Irish forest that seems to have no end to it. Trying to find help, she discovers three individuals who previously met the same fate as she did and now live in a glass-sided building called “The Coop”. Trapped by apparently paranormal forces, Mina has no choice but to join them as they are studied by mysterious entities called “The Watchers”, who congregate outside the Coop every single night. But just who are they and what do they want?


Unfortunately, Watched has already picked up some damning reviews (especially Stateside) and some poor box office. (And yet people are still happy to flock to Bad Boys 4 in their droves? The mind boggles…). But it’s not that bad. Just not that good. For a start, the first half of the film has some standout visuals and audio effects. The backdrop of the forests of county Galway (assuming that’s the right area used for the location and we’re not geography wankers) is absolutely stunning and this is reflected in some of the associated sequences, bringing to mind previous Irish-set genre films like The Hollow and The Hole in the Ground. As with those films, this scenery is important, linking as it does with the themes of Gaelic folklore and modern environmental concerns. So, atmospheric scenery and good visuals. Big tick.


Luckily, this segues into a first-half experience that is genuinely creepy and esoteric enough to be chilling without being graphic or obvious. As Mina’s situation slowly settles into a routine and she learns the rules (“#1 – Always face the window”, etc), there is a pleasingly vague and sinister air about the whole thing. Figures are glimpsed only swiftly and the unnatural clicking noise (which is, however, becoming a horror audio trope that needs to be left alone for a while) gives no clue as to the nature or appearance of the Watchers. Fortunately, as elements of their physicality and motives gradually become clearer, the reveals remain nicely surreal and unsettling. All is well and good so far for a PG horror, but…


… as the revelations start to come thick and fast after the midway point, things go off the rails a bit. Without going to Spoiler-Town, the second half becomes a showcase of swift exposition sequences, loads of info-dumps about associated lore, hurried plot devices, obvious rug-pulls, dumb decisions, and as-if-by-magic occurrences. Not to mention, plenty of plot holes that could be enlarged with very little effort. It’s probably the reason why some of the intended audience (who may not be familiar with the book) are finding it hard to relate to it to a great extent. It goes from an enjoyably artistic variation on “Woo, WTF is going on here? Spooky, isn’t it?” to “This is WTF is going on and you’re just having to accept it, even if it’s a bit daft.” Admittedly, that was an issue with some of Ishana’s Dad’s projects (“Lady in the Water” anyone?), but the shift in tone and plot handling feels completely different to the mood of the initial scenes as the story heads towards a simplistic and unlikely ending.


There are some other issues as well. After her fantastic turn in Barbarian, Campbell is given little to work with here, apart from a sweet scene set to Candi Stanton’s “Young Hearts “Run Free”. Fanning is mostly good, although the basic emotional arc she is given is a little black/white with the old chestnut of a parental death scarring her for life. Far too many close-ups of a teary-eyed Mina (about 5-6 in all honesty) are used, rather than more subtle emotional traits. The dependable Olwen Fouéré (Tarot, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.) probably comes off best. But the dialogue is a little blunt and stagey in some sequences. There are a lot of red herrings and weird details in the beginning, which makes you think that you’re going to see something more offbeat and ambiguous. For example, apart from Mina, all the faces of other actors (before she meets the “Watched”) are either blurred or hidden. This is probably a visual trick to demonstrate her isolation, but it’s so obvious that it makes you think that a major twist is being set up (it isn’t). Then there’s the detail of her wearing a wig to disguise her appearance on “nights out”. It’s almost as if they’re setting her up to be a serial killer or something (they aren’t). It’s something shown once and never elaborated on, although it arguably mirrors something later on. Still a bit odd though…  


All of this set-up is fine as long as it lasts and the introduction to the Watcher’s nature is satisfactorily done. But the last act just feels ordinary, rushed, and obvious, despite some of the elements that it contains. There are plenty of the usual social undercurrents explored. The parallels to the “Coop” and a bloody huge TV set are obvious, and if that wasn’t enough of a clue, poor old Mina has to sit through a DVD of “Lair of Love”, which is an even crappier version of “Love Island”. So there are nose-taps about how people behave in front of others, “reality” entertainment, social “rules”, and a huge emphasis on environmental damage done by homo sapiens in general. This is all fine, but in the end, it just comes down to chase sequences in the dark woods and surprisingly straightforward plot momentum, despite the lean towards fantastical elements. As well as obvious comparisons to “From”, you can also harken back to “Blair Witch”, “The Village”, the “Lost” TV series, and others.  


It's probably going to be one of those divisive films, derided by some but defended by others. To be honest, next-gen Shyamalan shows a great deal of promise in handling some of the horror elements of this project and definitely has a sharp eye for visual chicanery. As mentioned though, it’s the first half that holds all the high cards and the second half that gets the low ones. As a whole though, it’s enjoyable for what it is for the most part, with the initial spookiness and the first reveal being quite compelling. It’s probably going to live or die by the strength of personal reactions to the mystery of the Watchers themselves. Worth watching but left wanting.

To damn with faint praise, it’s okay. There are some visually stunning moments to begin with, and the first half is a feast of admirably restrained creepiness. It’s just a pity that the second half is a rushed journey through folk horror that loses itself in a series of messy and unconvincing revelations. Shyamalan shows skill but this doesn’t quite hit the target.  
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