Gothic Novel Gets the Gotcha! Horror Treatment

Deep in the woods of West Ireland — in “a forest that does not appear on any map” — there is a house. A steel door, blessed with numerous locks and bolts to keep its occupants safe, is the most prominent feature up front. The back of the house appears, at first, to be a wall-length mirror; it’s actually a one-way picture window. No one on the inside can see what’s happening outside. But anyone or any thing that might be lurking outside? They have a perfect, proscenium-style view into whatever is happening inside. Are you creeped out yet?

The Watchers, an adaptation of A.M. Shine’s debut horror novel by writer-director Ishana Shyamalan — and yes, that surname does seem awfully familiar — is banking on a few major primal fears, from an uneasiness about things hiding in the shadows to the sensation of being confined in a small space with zero ways out. The biggest arrow in its quiver, however, is the suspicion that you’re being observed by forces unknown, complete with an agenda, an axe to grind and an ability to come at you whenever it pleases. Ever had the feeling that you’re being watched? The characters in this Celtic-Gothic spin on the cabin-in-the-woods film (a surprisingly popular subgenre at the moment) know exactly what you’re going through. Whether you end up experiencing a second-hand level of terror that’s even one-tenth comparable to theirs, from the safety of a seat in a darkened theater, is a whole other story.

Before she ended up trapped in a house at the mercy of some seriously devoted, supernatural Reality TV fanatics, Mina (Dakota Fanning) was just another twentysomething American living in Galway. She spent her days tending to creatures in glass cages in a pet store — metaphor alert! — and her evenings putting on wigs and trolling bars for quick, meaningless hook-ups. Some 15 years ago, she was in a car accident with her sister and her mother, which left the latter dead. Now, Mina does whatever she needs to do to numb the existential pain around her trauma.

That doesn’t necessarily include driving halfway across West Ireland to deliver a parrot to a customer, mind you. But her coworker eventually badgers her into doing it, with the caveat that it will get her out of town and, implicitly, get her out of her own head. Mina hits the road. Once she gets near the edge of a forest — you know, that one the voiceover told us was not on any map — the radio goes static-y, her phone goes haywire and the car goes dead. Mina and her parrot exit the vehicle, in search of someone who might help. When she turns around a minute later, the car is nowhere to be seen. Night is falling, and a dark area filled with odd, almost keening noises isn’t exactly where you want to be after dusk. Mina suddenly notices a silver-haired woman sprinting through the trees. Then she spies the house. You’ll want to come inside right now if you want to live, the woman tells her. Five, four, three….

The lady who’s become Mina’s unlikely savior is named Madeline (Olwen Fouéré). She’s lived in what she calls “the coop” for some time now. Her fellow housemates are Daniel (Oliver Finch) and Ciara (Barbarian‘s Georgina Campbell). Until recently, Ciara’s husband, John (Alistair Brammer), rounded out the group. But he went off in search of help, and given that he’s the same guy we saw being pursued by something sinsister in the movie’s preamble, it’s safe to assume he won’t be returning any time soon. Not as the John they knew, at least.

Now that Mina finds herself as part of this unlikely quartet, she’s told the rules. You can’t go outside after dark. You must face the window at all times when “they” come out at night — all the better for what Madeline calls “the watchers” to watch them. Those huge holes that are dotted throughout the forest? Don’t go in them. Those numerous, handmade metallic signs that mark a hundred plus “no turning back” landmarks at the edge of the woods? Don’t go past them, because you won’t find shelter in time, and well, see Rule No. 1. If Mina does as she told, everyone survives to see another day. If not, she may make the watchers angry. And it’s strongly hinted that she must not make them angry, or else.


Georgine Campbell, Dakota Fanning, Oliver Finch and Olwen Fouéré in ‘The Watchers.’

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Mina is locked into what’s essentially a nightmare season of Big Brother, a comparison that The Watchers actively courts when our hero stumbles across a DVD set of the fictional reality TV series Lair of Love, a piece of physical media left by some mysterious person dubbed “the Professor.” Anyone with a weakness for high-falutin’ analogies might connect these unseen viewers — forever telling their prisoners “here we are now, entertain us!” — to the more vocal horror-movie fanatics among us, many of whom are constantly demanding bigger, bolder, gnarlier shocks and ahhs. That would be giving this take on a popular novel too much credit, though you certainly wouldn’t blame anybody who sought in vain to find deeper meaning past a desire to go “Boo!” Because if that were the only criteria, you’d find this exercise in stock spookiness to be mildly functional at best. It’s a film that looks, sounds and reads like a scary movie, except for the parts where you can feel the scares either handled clumsily or fizzle out before they’ve had a proper chance to detonate. (Feel free to keep the nepo-baby discussions among yourselves, but we will say that while Ms. Shyamalan has her own eye for unsettling compositions, this material cries out for a surer hand and a more experienced director navigating the movie’s more outré ideas.)

And given its setting, its scenario and its ultimate dependence on regional folklore, The Watchers turns out to be a fairy tale in more ways than one. If you know the book, you know the answers regarding the who, what, where and why behind its secrets. If not, know that all will be revealed and, past an investment in Fanning’s character (and an admiration for how she does more with less in terms of a low-key acting style within high-voltage scenes), little will hold your interest. You either go with the third act’s pile-up of twists, turns, plot surprises and pivots into the deep mystic, or you go, “Wait, what?” and simply run out the clock. How you watch The Watchers, and how you process its series of increasingly disbelief-suspending climaxes, is your call. Unlike the foursome at the center of it, however, you can always get up and leave.

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