‘The Watchers’ Review: Ishana Shyamalan’s Debut Is Big on Talk, Low on Shock

If movies like “The Watchers” have taught us anything it’s that when your Bluetooth device flashes ancient runes at you, you’re probably about to have a bad day. I’m not sure when exactly supernatural creatures learned how to code or how they’re replacing digital readouts and binary numbers with magic symbols, and I’ll grant you it doesn’t seem to happen terribly often, but it usually seems to presage something magically deadly (or at least magical death-adjacent).

“The Watchers” stars Dakota Fanning as Mina, an American working at a pet store in Ireland. She’s asked to deliver a rare Golden Conure — don’t look it up, it’s just a yellow parrot — to a faraway zoo. Mina drives through a cursed forest that we are told doesn’t show up on any map, so God only knows how Waze led her there, and then her radio flashes some old timey letters and the whole car shuts down.

Instead of waiting by the side of the road for the next vehicle to come along, Mina decides to venture into the forest, just far enough to lose sight of her car. Now she’s hopelessly lost forever, “Blair Witch” style. It’s getting dark and it’s getting spooky, but an old woman named Madeline (Olwen Fouéré, “Tarot”) waves her inside a brutalist cement building just before sunset. One wall is a giant two-way mirror, and on the other side — ever present but never seen — are creatures that Madeline calls “The Watchers.” Because, you see… they watch.

Madeline went to the Bela Lugosi in “Island of Lost Souls” school of horror movie character tropes, because almost all her dialogue is making sure everyone else knows the rules. She explains to Mina that she’s now stuck there, along with Madeline, Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and Ciara (Georgina Campbell, “Barbarian”). The Watchers only come out at night. If you’re outside when the sun goes down they’ll kill you, and if you’re inside they’ll watch you like you’re on a freaky minimalist reality TV series. The building is surrounded by “Point of No Return” signs, and if you venture any further than those markers you can’t get back before dark, so don’t even try.

There are more rules. There are so very many rules. The New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures release has a frightening premise but finding it beneath the laundry pile of “how to” instructions is very difficult, so you’ll be forgiven if you give up after a while. Basically Mina, who worked at a pet store if you’ll recall, has wandered into a terrarium for human beings, and whatever the creatures outside are, they’re basically just poking the glass and freaking her out.

It’s a simple enough concept but “The Watchers” has surprisingly little interest in it. Writer-director Ishana Shyamalan, daughter of thriller auteur M. Night Shyamalan making her feature film debut, strays far from any aspect of the story that’s relatable or frightening. By the time one of the protagonists goes mad and turns on the others, it’s completely perfunctory. We don’t know how they reached that point because we don’t know them. At all. We just take it for granted that, because “The Watchers” is a single-location horror movie, someone in this cast is bound to turn out to be an asshole eventually. So we might as well run with it.

Dakota Fanning in “The Watchers” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Instead of showing us what it would feel like to be stuck in this terrifying situation, Shyamalan’s screenplay — based on a novel by A.M. Shine — tells us what the rules are, what will happen if someone breaks the rules, and just for a change of pace, what rules they need to follow whenever the other rules get broken.

Look, every horror movie with a premise more complicated than “someone in a mask is out to get you” has to explain the rules at some point. The problem with “The Watchers” is that it’s not just an exposition dump that Shyamalan gets out of the way, so the audience can stop asking questions and get invested in what’s really happening. What’s really happening here is always secondary to rules, rules, rules, even during the big finale.

Then again, if we knew what was actually happening we’d start asking more important questions, and those questions don’t have great answers. There are revelations, dear audience member, and some of them make a lot more sense than others. Indeed, one big reveal is laugh out loud hilarious in the heat of the moment, and in retrospect — after everything is finally revealed — it clearly makes no sense at all.

The good thing about horror movies like “The Watchers” is that they usually give the cast some pretty juicy material. It’s an opportunity to dig inside themselves and pull out their darkest emotions, or at least an excuse to overact and get away with it. Unfortunately, “The Watchers” isn’t one of those horror movies. Olwen Fouéré has mastered the art of describing plot, an invaluable skill for any actor, but the characters don’t form meaningful relationships even though they spend all their time together. So nothing seems to matter.

There are moments of genuine creepiness… in the woods, in the dark… but they are few and far between. “The Watchers” isn’t very scary and it’s only interesting for as long as it’s an intellectual curiosity, and it’s not intellectual curiosity for the full 102-minute running time. Maybe if we only saw what The Watchers saw we’d be as fascinated as they are, but we’re seeing everything that happens behind the scenes of their favorite TV show, and it simply ruins the magic.

“The Watchers” opens exclusively in theaters on June 7.

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