For those of us who have been around a little while, M. Night Shyamalan does not seem old enough to have a daughter old enough to direct movies. But true enough, this is the 25th anniversary of the release of The Sixth Sense. Papa Shyamalan is indeed turning 54 this year, and has a daughter in her mid-20s. Ishana Night Shyamalan is directing her first feature film The Watchers, and though daddy serves as producer, thankfully, he did not demand a cameo.


It probably should not be a surprise that The Watchers demonstrates a similar blend of Ishana’s father’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. She’d have been studying his technique for the entire time her father saw it fit to show her his movies. What’s disappointing – though probably not surprising for a first-time filmmaker – is the heavy bias toward M. Night’s weaknesses. The strengths are a high concept, a generally ominous tone and some good-looking visuals. The weaknesses are everything else, particularly the writing and the directing of actors.

The Watchers follows Mina (Dakota Fanning), a depressed American living in Dublin who works at a pet store. She’s depressed because she views herself as responsible for her mother’s death in a car accident when she was a child and causing a distraction in the back seat. But that was 15 years ago, almost exactly, and her sister rightly tells her, in regular phone calls, to get over it.

Mina’s depression makes her on obvious target for a mysterious Irish forest that attracts lost souls, never to disgorge them once they’ve entered. How else to explain, in logical terms, that her drive to deliver an exotic bird to a zoo across the country takes her way, way off the beaten path into a dense woodsy area that barely has passable roads. Once she crosses in, the effect is that of an electromagnetic pulse on her car. While that might have a terrestrial explanation, the subsequent disappearance of the car, when Mina turned her back for only a moment, decidedly does not.

At first thinking herself hopelessly stranded with just her bird as a companion, Mina sees a flash of a figure between the trees, which is Madeline (Olwen Fouere), a survivalist type who has been living in a safe space in these woods they call “the coop.” The coop has two other occupants, Danny (Oliver Finnegan) and Ciara (Georgina Campbell), though you get the impression there used to be others. None of them can escape the woods, and they can only stray from the coop during the day, because at night, terrifying creatures none of them have seen, whose shrieks curdle the blood, come to watch them though a two-way mirror. If the residents of the coop don’t appear for the nightly show, there will be consequences.


For anyone who goes into a movie from either Shyamalan with a sense of optimism – presumably granting Ishana the benefit of the doubt, sight unseen – the first third of this movie will contain many of the conventional pleasures of one of daddy’s mid-level successes. If drawing only from M. Night’s filmography, you’ve got little bits of The Village, The Happening, Lady in the Water and last year’s Knock at the Cabin all showing up here in some capacity. The samples of other concepts from other mind-benders are countless.

From very early on, though, there’s evidence of the familiar Shyamalan family clunkiness. One problem is that the early story machinations leave Mina alone with the bird, leaving her to talk to it in a manner that is both too awkward and too expository. When Mina notices her car has disappeared, for example, it would seem logical that we could grok her computation of this change in her circumstances just from the expression on her face. Ishana doesn’t trust her viewers, so she includes Mina’s line of dialogue “Where’s the car?” In a sign of good efficiency, though, the writing deficit takes down Fanning’s acting along with it.


As we get into the story proper, the younger Shyamalan does place us in an environment replete with mysterious sounds and blurred shapes, which keeps us tanalised in the short run. The more that is revealed about the plot, though, the more clear it is that the rules with his world are shaky and inconsistent. And new reveals start inviting groans rather than gasps, until the worst of her father’s narrative indulgences are regularly plaguing the film.

The biggest problem with The Watchers, though, may be structural. In order not to spoil too much about the film’s third act, suffice it to say it shifts the film’s core setting in a way that entirely dissipates whatever tension had been built up previously. You have about five minutes to wonder if this is just a terrible error before realising that Shyamalan has a design to bring things around to a different sort of climax, which involves more dubious reveals, and is the point when the film really goes off the rails.


In the final hat tip to her father, Ishana Night Shyamalan decides that she wants to tap into the potent emotions that were the secret weapon that played off the scares of her father’s breakout film. But she doesn’t have Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment and Toni Colette to deliver those moments, so the effort falls flat, especially since it is executed with the same level of clumsiness in the writing that we see throughout. Dakota Fanning was once a child acting prodigy like Osment, but she has since been far surpassed by her sister Elle – who has the good sense not to be the latest silly cypher in a played-out prestige horror.


The Watchers is currently playing in cinemas.

3 / 10