If anything could revive the worn-out nepotism discourse, it would be this summer’s horror offerings. In August we have M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming thriller, Trap, built around an arena show for a pop superstar played by his pop-singer daughter, Saleka. And this Friday you can catch the directorial debut of his other daughter, Inasha Night Shyamalan. The Watchers, which is based on the novel by A.M. Shine, has a promising premise and compelling imagery, but can’t quite live up to those modest hopes. 

The Watchers follows Mina (Dakota Fanning), an antisocial pet-store clerk tasked with delivering a rare yellow parrot to a client in another town. Her trip brings her to a mysterious forest that has a tendency for swallowing up anyone who enters. With the sun setting and her car nowhere to be found, Mina takes shelter in a strange one-room building (called the Coop) with three others, who are, we learn, fellow captives. Every night, vicious creatures come to watch them through the two-way mirror, studying their appearance and mannerisms. 

Doubles are significant figures in folk tales, sinister changelings that replace kidnapped children, or doppelgangers that are only detectable by their lack of shadow. And here the doubles and mimics are piled high––Mina has an identical twin; she carries around a parrot that mimics speech; there’s the everpresent mirror in the Coop––but all this symbolism doesn’t lead to anything particularly interesting. We are given so little time to understand Mina before she gets lost in the forest that no emotional beats have any emotional resonance. In an early scene she puts on a wig and changes her name to meet men in a bar because, as she says to the parrot, “You wouldn’t like the real me.” If the real Mina ever appears, I must have missed it. Maybe the scant character development here would be enough if Mina were played by someone a bit more invested, but Dakota Fanning’s performance is nearly apathetic (although she is still quite charismatic for someone who is giving us nothing). 

The rest of the film doesn’t give much, either, despite being pretty competently made. There is one shot, in which a pair of legs appear on a screen over someone’s shoulder, that feels pulled from the M. Night playbook, as does some of the more ostentatious camerawork. But The Watchers is almost devoid of genuine scares. The most frightening scene is its opening; the scariest thing about it is that a man falls from a tree. There certainly is a place in the market for a mild horror film (if you have friends who can’t handle a true scare, this is the movie for them) but even without gore, it still needs to get under your skin.

This isn’t to say the film has no visual interest. Shot by Eli Arenson (Lamb), The Watchers takes great advantage of the gorgeous, gothic vegetation of eastern Ireland: moss-covered ground, grey skies, dark and gnarled trees. And the Coop is a lovely image, a warmly lit brutalist theatre in the wilderness where the four captives are forced to perform the same play every night. But the atmosphere evaporates whenever we are treated to some terrible special effects. And the many well-trod horror tropes (the mad-scientist video diary, the dead-mom backstory, the doppelganger at the door) are deployed without much flair. Even my favorite horror-movie trope, where the protagonist visits a university to consult with a professor or leaf through dusty occult books, has so little at stake. I am not usually one to complain about this kind of thing, but the fact that months go by and Mina’s clothing does not incur any wear or dirt makes the whole thing feel a bit fake. And that’s The Watchers: a serviceable but slightly soulless copy of countless films.

The Watchers opens on Friday, June 7.

Grade: C

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