In The Watchers, Ishana Shyamalan proves that big juicy twists run in the family

The twist at the end of The Watchers? That M. Night Shyalaman’s daughter, first-time director Ishana, is as capable of crafting powerful, eerie atmosphere as her old man. But Luke Buckmaster says the plot twist itself doesn’t measure up.

In case you were wondering: yes, big juicy twists are hereditary. News that Ishana Shyamalan—daughter of M. Night Shyamalan—had directed her first feature naturally begged the question of whether the young filmmaker would take a page out of her old man’s book and deliver a surprise ending to her folkloric horror movie centred around, as an introductory voice-over intones, “a forest in Northern Ireland that doesn’t appear on a map.” This woodland setting is vaguely The Village-esque in that it seemingly exists outside space and time, surrounded by terrible humanoid creatures that slink around and go bump in the night.

I will not, of course, disclose any spoilers about how The Watchers ends, suffice to say that the final act is an interesting example of energy dictating expectations. There’s a point where the narrative has theoretically resolved, all the essential story beats having played out, but the energy of the film says “but…” and makes it clear something’s coming up, in which another card—presumably a Joker—will be plucked from the deck. This ending is explosively silly and makes the mistake, as pappa Shyamalan has on several occasions, of over-catering for plot developments at the end of an experience that’s most impressive atmospherically.

More powerful than any act of narrative subterfuge are a particular set of images from The Watchers that are embedded in my mind: the surreal vision of four people, standing in a box-like edifice in the forest, facing a one-way window, which is a mirror for them and a huge display panel for the titular creatures watching on from outside. Not long after getting lost in the woods, Dakota Fanning’s protagonist Mina—the haunted kind, with thousand-yard stares and a grim backstory—is ushered into the aforementioned building by Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), a crazy-looking woman who says things like “may we meet again before dark” and informs her of rules that must be followed to appease those “Watchers.”

One is that, every evening, just after sundown, they must stand still for their unseen voyeuristic observers (interestingly, the slightly but strikingly different title given to the film for its release in the UK and Ireland—The Watched— emphasises the observed, rather than the observers). Mina is stuck here, in this wild woods at the edge of existence, with two additional, quite uninteresting characters: Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and Ciara (Georgina Campbell). I was compelled by their weirdly performative nightly routine—the building becoming a sparse stage and the window/mirror a proscenium arch, separating performer and audience as well as life from oblivion.

These moments reminded me of Five Characters in Search of an Exit, the famous episode of The Twilight Zone about an army major who wakes up in an empty room, with no doors and windows, and four people who, like him, have no idea where they are or how they got there. Like the major, Madeline is an agent of change, whose determination to escape sparks renewed hope in the others.

When Shyamalan (adapting A. M. Shine’s novel of the same name) hints that one character might not be telling the truth, you can feel The Watchers bending towards a Things Aren’t What They Seem pivot, even if we don’t really know what things are anyway, trying to get our heads around the story’s tricksy otherwordliness.

I enjoyed the film’s slippery, trepidation-clogged mood; the feeling we’re on uneven ground, about to give way to some higher or lower reality. That feeling is quite effectively stretched out and given where things end up is something I appreciated more in hindsight: like countless other mysteries, the anticipation is far more engaging than the reveal. To find a satisfying balance between sparking intrigue, and revealing enough to dot i’s and cross t’s, is the genre’s greatest challenge. If a surprise twist is involved, it helps if it’s bloody good, like in  Five Characters in Search of an Exit or—from the Shyamalan bloodline—The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. In The Watchers, the twist is merely OK; nothing to write home about.