“This is getting out of hand — now there are TWO of them!”

Superhero fatigue is clickbait bullshit and the MCU did not kill cinema. This has been thoroughly proven by now, in a year with historic box office lows and only one superhero movie to date. And that one superhero movie was Madame Web, a dreadful mistake separate from the MCU and pre-emptively disowned by pretty much everyone associated with it.

Granted, there are other factors. The strikes last year pushed a lot of films out, we’re still living in an economy where precious few of us have disposable income, and then there’s whatever the hell is going on with streaming. All the same, I find it interesting how everyone was complaining about MCU fatigue just a few months ago, and now nobody seems to be complaining about horror fatigue.

In the six months of 2024 so far, we’ve had Night Swim, Lisa Frankenstein, Immaculate, Late Night with the Devil, The First Omen, Abigail, Imaginary, Tarot, I Saw the TV Glow, The Strangers: Chapter 1, In a Violent Nature, and those are just the low- and mid-tier releases. We even got a high-budget tentpole with Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire. And let’s not forget the notable upcoming releases, with Beetlejuice Beetlejuice right around the corner, alongside Maxxxine and the next two The Strangers films, among others.

I know this has been an ongoing trend for a long time now, but I think we’ve finally hit the point of oversaturation for low- and mid-budget horror films. Yes, we’ve gotten some legitimate masterpieces in recent memory. Yes, it’s wonderful to see studios take chances on new and original ideas with the security of minimal financial risk. But Hollywood has never been very good with moderation, especially when it comes to making a quick buck. Thus we have a marketplace flooded with horror films so cheaply and quickly made that they’re guaranteed to make a profit no matter how awful or unmemorable they are.

So here we are with The Watchers, the writing/directing debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan, complete with daddy Manoj producing and running second unit. And par for the course with this family, what we’ve got here is an unsettling premise that slowly dissolves into a bullshit ending.

Our protagonist for the evening is Mina, played by Dakota Fanning (who also briefly appears as Mina’s twin sister Lucy, ha ha). Her mom died fifteen years ago for reasons that Mina continues to blame herself for. So it is that Mina lives in solitary drudgery, working at a pet store in the day while she spends her nights picking up one-night stands in various disguises. Let’s pause for a moment here.

Within the first fifteen minutes, Shyamalan has established pretty much all the major motifs of the film. We’ve got pet animals living in cages for the amusement and companionship of their human owners. We’ve got twins and mimicry, both extensions of the “reflections” motif. We’ve got loss and trauma. And we’ve got the notion of dressing up in disguises as a means of belonging and/or ensnaring prey. It would be genuinely impressive how quickly and thoroughly Shyamalan set up the rest of the film, if it wasn’t done in such a contrived bullshit way.

Anyway, Mina is sent away on an errand and ends up stranded in a remote Irish forest. Weird supernatural shit happens, she gets lost, and she finds herself in a strange bunker with a reflective two-way mirror taking up an entire wall. What’s worse, lethal beings of some sort are on the other side of the mirror, obsessed with watching their captives for some unknown reason. And we’re off to the races.

(Side note: Quite famously, M. Night Shyamalan has filmed almost all of his movies in his home state of Pennsylvania. Imagine my surprise to find that this movie was actually filmed on location in Ireland. Kudos, Ishana!)

There’s really no point in going over the supporting cast. We’ve got Olwen Fourere playing a wizened old exposition machine, with Georgina Campbell and Oliver Finnegan taking up space as a couple of potential victims. In all honesty, I was much more taken with the actors playing their body doubles in the scenes with the reflective mirror. Even knowing how that trick works, it doesn’t make me any less impressed to see it done so well.

In fact, the visuals as a whole are quite remarkable. While Shyamalan shares her father’s disturbing predilection for extreme close-up shots, the nature photography throughout is dazzling, and the Watchers themselves look suitably creepy.

It sucks that I can’t discuss much more without going into spoilers. I can only say that the ending is bullshit and the world-building is sloppy, to the point where the film doesn’t even make sense within its own established rules. I need hardly add that because all this supernatural fuckery is happening in a remote Irish forest, I’m sure you’ve already figured out a pretty good guess as to what’s going on.

Much as I’m loathe to quote other people’s reviews, a friend of mine wrote to me about the film with a simple two-word review: “Nothing happens.” That might be an oversimplification, but not by much. This is a 100-minute movie that could’ve easily been trimmed by 10 minutes at least, and the central mystery isn’t compelling enough to get us through the long stretches of nothing. This is most especially problematic by the end, when I was wondering out loud why this movie was still going on. And again, it was all in service of a bullshit ending.

The Watchers is the product of a shitty storyteller who knows her way around a camera. I can’t fault the production design, the camerawork, the score, or even the casting. Thin as the characters are, these were the right actors to play them. The big problem here is that there’s nothing exciting or intriguing about the story, certainly not enough to justify the setup. We’ve got some neat motifs here, but nothing that comes together into a coherent or intelligent theme.

Overall, this is a neat little demo reel for Ishana Night Shyamalan, but not much use for anything else. Better luck next time, ma’am.

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