The Watchers

With this intriguing gothic-tinged horror film, Ishana Night Shyamalan makes her feature directorial debut and lives up to her surname.
Sarah Ward
Published on June 06, 2024


A quarter of a century ago, M Night Shyamalan started coaching audiences to associate his surname with on-screen twists. Now that The Sixth Sense writer/director's daughter Ishana Night Shyamalan is following in his footsteps by making her first feature, decades of that viewer training across Unbreakable, SignsThe Visit, Split, Glass and more laps at The Watchers' feet. The question going in for those watching is obvious: will the second-generation filmmaker, who first worked as a second-unit director on her dad's Old and Knock at the Cabin — and also penned and helmed episodes of exceptionally eerie horror TV series Servant, on which her father was the showrunner — turn M Night's well-known and -established penchant for surprise reveals that completely recontextualise his narratives into a family trademark?

Viewing a Shyamalan movie from The Sixth Sense onwards has always been an exercise in piecing together a puzzle, sleuthing along as clues are dropped about how the story might swiftly shift. It's no different with The Watchers, which Ishana adapts from AM Shine's novel and M Night produces. The younger filmmaking Shyamalan leans into the expectations that come with being her dad's offspring and picking up a camera, making a supernatural mystery-thriller horror flick and living with his brand of screen stories for her entire life. That said, while it's easy to initially think of The Village when The Watchers sets its narrative in isolated surroundings where the woods are filled with threats, and also of Knock at the Cabin given that its four main characters are basically holed up in one, Ishana demonstrates her own prowess, including by heartily embracing her source material's gothic air.

This is a tale with a Mina at its centre, after all, because Shyamalan isn't the only name attached to The Watchers that means something in horror. As gothic stories in the genre long have told, it's also a tale of being haunted — here, by the monsters that lurk among the trees in a mysterious patch of western Ireland, and also by the kind of loss and sorrow that reshapes entire lives. As Ishana dials up the foreboding while dancing with fantasy, too, The Watchers proves a reckoning with identity as well. Yearning for the ability to define your own sense of self is another familiar gothic notion (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein puts it among the ideas at its centre), and also a fitting theme and statement for a person who's leaping into a field where they're immediately standing in someone else's shadow.

Hours from Galway, shade also looms as The Watchers kicks off. As captured with a moody gaze by cinematographer Eli Arenson — and an eye for the claustrophobia that can simmer in expansive natural spaces, as he also splashed around in 2021's Lamb — warm rays barely filter through the forest even when the sun is high in the sky. In a state of near-perpetual twilight, the woodland possesses an otherworldly and ominous feel. A man (Alistair Brammer, Ancient Empires) is spied trying to flee its sprawling cover; however, the signs about not being able to turn back keep proving accurate. Birds flutter in a swooping and circling flock, the thicket buzzes with its own noise — both with unease as dense as the canopy above — and the picture advises that this location is absent from maps and a beacon for lost souls.

A command of atmosphere bubbles through the movie from the outset, then, even before Mina (Dakota Fanning, Ripley) wanders through the same grove. She's entering rather than trying to leave — at first. An American artist working in a pet shop in a biding-her-time fashion, the 28-year-old is tasked with a normal albeit time-consuming delivery, but then her car breaks down and her phone dies shortly after driving into the greenery. Prior to Mina hitting the road, The Watchers dapples her everyday existence with a disquieting vibe. In her life in the Irish city, she's plastering literal wigs and metaphorical masks over her unhappiness while avoiding calls from her sister Lucy and grappling with the death of their mother 15 years earlier. En route to being stranded in a bunker called The Coop, which is sat in a tract where no one should go down to the woods by dark, she's also already feeling as caged as the parrot that she's about to try to ferry to a Belfast zoo.

The Coop is no ordinary cabin in the woods, not that many on-screen are, with kudos deserved by The Watchers' production designers. Mirrored glass lines one of its walls, letting interested eyes peer in unseen (their audible reactions provide a soundtrack as well) as the motley crew that is Madeline (Olwen Fouéré, The Tourist), Ciara (Georgina Campbell, Barbarian), Daniel (Oliver Finnegan, We Are Lady Parts) and now Mina navigate their new routine. Each strangers going in and each trapped, they're all endeavouring to survive the creatures that demand to observe them eating, watching an old dating-style reality TV series and sleeping every evening — and, without their captors realising, to ascertain how to escape a place that appears impossible to exit. There are rules to enduring. There are grim consequences for not abiding by them. No one has made it out to seek help and returned, the stern Madeline cautions.

When a reflective surface plays such a pivotal part, it's hardly astonishing when a film trades in parallels, including with an IRL world that's frequently becoming one giant online performance (to stress the point, one of The Watchers' most-striking shots shows how Mina and company inhabit a stage for their keepers). As well as absorbing her father's fondness for spinning unsettling tales, Ishana has inherited his ambition, clearly, as she also works in Celtic lore and the impact of colonialism. While it's one thing to aim big and another to thoroughly wrestle everything that you're eager to explore and touch upon into one movie, her directorial debut sports an instantly intriguing premise that draws viewers in effectively, a flair for imagery and tension, and an excellent lead. When Fanning is playing the feature's protagonist as someone who can't see anything but her own pain — who can't see the forest for the trees, aptly — she wears Mina's fragility and vulnerability like a second skin. When her character is forced to confront being put on display, she's just as mesmerisingly relatable.


Tap and select Add to Home Screen to access Concrete Playground easily next time. x