1 out of 5 stars

Bad supernatural horror tends to give me a greater appreciation for the great works in the genre. Take The Shining (1980) by Stanley Kubrick. Stephen King may grumble about this adaptation of his 1977 novel, but it has as much folklore, history, and psychology in its subtext as The Watched (The Watchers in the US), the debut film by 24-year-old writer-director Ishana Night Shyamalan, which is based on a novel by A.M Shine. Yet, one of these films keeps none of that on the surface, while the other is obvious and shallow.

The plot of The Watched is that Mina (Dakota Fanning) is an American working in a Galway pet shop when her boss tasks her with driving a parrot cross country. She comes to a forest which in a partially narrated prologue we learn is out of Irish folklore, an evil place where humans become lost and entrapped. Mina is its next victim, and she happens across three others: ageing academic Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), a woman called Ciara (Georgina Campbell), and a boy called Daniel (Oliver Finnegan). Together they share a shack in the woods with a display window which is used by the Watchers, a mysterious race that likes to watch the incumbents at night, leaving them only a gramophone and a DVD of a trash TV reality show for entertainment.

The recent discussion of “nepo babies” (beneficiaries of nepotism in the entertainment industry) has been interesting although nothing new. The problem is that nowadays the doors are more closed to outsiders than they’ve ever been, for several complex reasons. In the 1960s, a beautiful girl with a dream in her heart could hitchhike to Los Angeles and—provided she wasn’t murdered on the way—stand a chance at paying her dues enough to become the next Norma Jean. Today you need three years of experience, five forms of ID, references, and various completed online forms to get onto the long list for an interview for a job washing cars, so good luck paying your dues before you starve to death or freeze out on the streets.

This is how we end up with films directed by a long-standing director’s barely-out-of-college daughter. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue for the average filmgoer if those nepo babies were also talented. But is that the case here? Well, given that Ishana’s father isn’t exactly known for his consistency anyway…

There’s a reason why I brought up The Shining at the start of this review. Its subtle and graceful, non-expository storytelling is precisely what’s missing from The Watched, a lumpen, leaden, lackadaisical junk movie with hokey acting and criminally bad dialogue. Its vision of Ireland is so painfully L.A. “Irish” that I half-expected Olwen Fouéré to scream “Begorra, your eejit, it’s all for the craic!” and break into a jig while the backdrop falls to reveal Sunset Boulevard in the distance.

The establishing shots that Ishana uses to place us in Galway at the start of the film are so flat and uninteresting they could be from a daytime soap opera, or offcuts from Ed Sheeran’s music video for “Galway Girl”. Fanning’s American in Ireland is one of those movie women who talk to animals about how messed up they are because they’re just so kooky, and lie to men in bars about their profession because they’re mysterious and quirky, see?

The dialogue gets off to a bad start. Mina, who works in a pet shop, is scolded by her boss for smoking in the street outside because “the animals don’t like it”. This line only makes sense if she were smoking inside the shop. But, again, she’s outside. So, it seems like her boss thinks his budgerigars take personal umbrage with smoking as a habit. (The camera even cuts to a bird on its perch, presumably aghast at this uncouth young woman.) I suppose he could mean the smoke smell on her clothes, but even so, I’m pretty sure you can’t stop your employees from smoking on their breaks outside the shop.

This might seem like a minor detail, and it is (there’s much worse to come), but it’s demonstrative of how the writer-director struggles to convincingly dramatise the situation. The writing clunks and clangs with all the elegance of a child’s creative writing exercise. Mina is, of course, haunted by something in her past, but in the tradition of terrible non-horror, it’s nothing truly interesting or—heaven forbid—something that would give depth to the character.

The Watched tries to juggle complex themes of love, life, and the existential but ultimately feels empty, lacking a clear message or direction. The endless exposition on the nature of the Watchers belongs in a bargain bin pulp horror novel (referencing the days of physical media).

As a seasoned cinemagoer, I’ve grown familiar with the pre-screening content rating. My heart plummeted when The Watched received a simple “strong horror” classification. This is often a red flag. A film with something to say, or even some humour, would have its specific brand of horror detailed in the rating. Here, “strong horror” can only refer to the dull creature effects and jarring sound design, full of predictable jump scares. Not exactly terrifying.

Following the worst horror tropes, the film drags on interminably, long after its welcome has worn thin. It pads the runtime with a backstory nobody cares about. I found myself checking my phone for the time constantly during the last half hour.

Ishana Shyamalan evinces no particular directorial gifts that indicate that she would have been given such a golden ticket of opportunity, at just 24 years of age, without Daddy’s influence. If that’s too mean, please forgive me, but it’s annoying when you’re watching a film that any yeoman hack could have churned out for a TV channel, and it’s the debut of a nepo baby whose father is listed as a producer. If this is what you get for that pedigree, why not give the chance to a young woman whose father isn’t a multimillionaire household name? Although, speaking of pedigree…

Since I’m feeling pugnacious, I’ll venture out on a limb and argue that M. Night Shyamalan was never a truly great director, but rather a one-hit wonder who just happened to have two hits (1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2000’s Unbreakable). Some might say three and add 2002’s Signs, but I wouldn’t.

Ishana’s handling of the script for The Watched so closely resembles her father’s style that I wouldn’t be surprised if he had an uncredited role in it somewhere. When he’s not badly adapting pulp fiction or trying to convince you he’s Jesus Christ in the body of a wandering bard, Shyamalan seems to enjoy making offensive assumptions about mental illness, social class, and trauma. His last film, Knock at the Cabin (2023), featured a redneck character played by Rupert Grint who committed a homophobic hate crime—supposedly due to abuse from his father. Oliver Finnegan’s Daniel is the Irish chav version of that same character.

Before The Watched played, there was an advertisement for M. Night’s upcoming film, Trap. The trailer has all the sloppy hallmarks of both his and now his daughter’s work. Someone once said that directors get to keep making movies by not losing anyone money. Surely Shyamalan and his nepotism beneficiary are close to running out of luck? One can dream.

USA • IRELAND | 2024 | 102 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Ishana Night Shyamalan.
writer: Ishana Night Shyamalan (based on the novel by A.M Shine).
starring: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouéré, Oliver Finnegan, Alistair Brammer & John Lynch.