The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE WATCHED | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE WATCHED

The Watched review
Four strangers are trapped in a building in the remote woods of western Ireland, where mysterious creatures stalk them by night.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ishana Night Shyamalan

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Oliver Finnegan, Olwen Fouere

The Watched poster

Ishana Night Shyamalan's feature debut, The Watched (or The Watchers as it's known in North America; who knows what's behind the name change?), shows she has her father's eye but few of his other talents. Like Brandon Cronenberg, Ishana seems set on embracing her father's influence rather than purposely shying away from any comparisons. On paper The Watched reads like exactly the sort of movie you might expect from daddy Shyamalan, but where Cronenberg Junior has proven himself capable of replicating both his father's thematic obsessions and talent, Shyamalan Junior displays none of her old man's storytelling skills. Watching The Watched, I couldn't help but wonder if this is what it's like to watch an M. Night movie if you're not a fan of his distinctive shtick.

A somnambulistic Dakota Fanning is miscast in the lead role of Mina (that Bram Stoker reference is one of several pieces of evidence here that Ishana is clearly a fan of Ireland's rich horror lore; there's also mention of a sister named Lucy), an American escaping a traumatic past (of course) and now residing in the Irish city of Galway, where she works at a pet store. When Mina is tasked with bringing a rare parrot to a zoo in Belfast, she finds herself stuck in a dense forest when her car breaks down, as somewhat suspiciously does her phone. As darkness falls, Mina hears some creepy sounds in the woods, and spots a woman running through the trees. She follows the woman to an isolated building in the middle of the forest and follows her shouted order, "If you want to live you'll run!"

The Watched review

Inside the one room building, Mina finds herself alongside Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), the woman who guided her there; Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), a nervy young Irish lad (Finnegan seems to be channelling Irish pop duo Jedward with his odd performance); and Ciara (rising horror star Georgina Campbell, who might have been a better choice for the lead role of Mina), a ditzy young British woman. The sparse room contains nothing but a table, some chairs, a TV with a DVD player and a vintage gramophone (sounds a lot like my first bedsit). As a general rule, if you find yourself in a room with Olwen Fouéré and a vintage gramophone you should immediately make your excuses and leave, but Mina decides to stay the night. In doing so she discovers that her new roommates have been trapped in the woods for a considerable amount of time.

If you saw the recent horror mediocrity Tarot you'll recall how Fouéré was wheeled in for a couple of scenes to lazily explain that film's backstory and lay out its mythos. The Irish actress finds herself saddled with a similar job here, but she's present throughout and spends practically all of her screen time explaining one new plot contrivance after another. The first thing she explains is how a group of mysterious creatures she's labelled "The Watchers" emerge from burrows in the forest once night falls and spy on Madeline and her fellow inmates, who stand in a line before the one-sided window as though they're in a police line-up.

The Watched review

Unlike the others, Mina is determined to find a way out of this predicament and begins breaking the various "rules" laid out by Madeline, including daring to venture down into one of the deep burrows in a sequence that is nowhere near as suspenseful as its setup suggests. Every time Mina thinks she might have come up with a plan, Madeline interjects with some new rule, like the world's creepiest dungeonmaster. This is how the story progresses, with every twist and turn being told to us by Madeline rather than shown to us by the film. It makes for an exasperating watch.

As this is made by a filmmaker with THAT last name, you'll no doubt be primed for a twist, and we do indeed get one here, but it's clunkily unveiled through the same tiresome exposition that we've spent the previous 80 minutes wading through. While the twist lacks impact it is somewhat fascinating in a metatextual context, which I'm going to have to enter SPOILER territory to discuss, so turn back now if you must.

The Watched review

The "watchers" are revealed to be the sidhe of Irish mythology, better known as "changelings." These fairy-like creatures are known for taking the place of humans, usually either children or mothers. If you've seen either of the Irish horror movies The Hole in the Ground or You Are Not My Mother you'll have seen this mythology explored in far more confident and compelling fashion. In this version of the sidhe we're told that the creatures watch their human prey in order to better mimic their appearance. This theme of mimicry is hinted at earlier in the film, through both Mina's talking parrot and a scene in which she dons a disguise on a night of pub crawling. If you're a young filmmaker who knows you'll be burdened with comparisons to your famous parent, to choose this subject matter is quite daring. Ishana seems to be explicitly acknowledging how she's attempting to mimic her father's filmmaking style.

In The Watched, we're told that the sidhe ultimately fail because while they might be able to replicate human appearance, they lack everything that makes us human, our experiences of love, pain, etc (this also allows for a reading of the film as an allegory for the artist's fear of being usurped by AI). Unfortunately for Ishana, her film's theme only serves to draw attention to her own shortcomings in aping her father. On a superficial level The Watched certainly looks the part, and Ishana shows an eye for a moody image, but her movie lacks the human touch that distinguishes her father's best work. Bearing in mind she's still in her mid-twenties, there's still a lot of time for Ishana to prove she can stand on her own, but she may be advised to forge her own path rather than conforming to the expectations of her family name.

The Watched is in UK/ROI cinemas from June 7th.

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