Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Ashwin Rajan and Nimitt Mankad   Director: Ishana Night Shyamalan   Screenplay: Ishana Night Shyamalan   Cast: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Oliver Finnegan, Olwen Fouéré, Alistair Brammer, John Lynch, Hannah Dargan, Joel Figueroa and Eabha Connolly    Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: C

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a nepo baby, as the catty phrase puts it, so long as you’re a talented one; think of Kirk and Michael Douglas, or Lloyd and Jeff Bridges (even Beau), or John and David Carradine (even Robert).  Even if you are talented, though, it’s usually a good idea not to mimic your parent overmuch: Sofia Coppola might be a director like her father, but her films have a personality of their own, while Joe King’s (aka Joe Hill’s) horror novels strike one as pale imitations of Stephen’s. 

On the evidence of her first feature, after directing a half-dozen episodes of her father’s TV series “Servant” (and writing a few more), Ishana Night Shyamalan seems more inclined to follow Hill’s example than Coppola’s. Based on 2022 novel by A.M. Shine, “The Watchers” is a supernaturally-themed thriller, and it concludes with twist designed to surprise you.  It turns out to be no better than M. Night’s more mediocre entries in that genre.

One aspect of Ishana’s film that it shares with her father’s, though, is visual elegance. “The Watchers” look great, the compositions refined and the images beautifully burnished.  Of course cinematographer Eli Arenson deserves a healthy share of the credit for that, and the eye-catching West Irish locations don’t hurt.  And though again production designer Ferdia Murphy must be mentioned regarding the appearance of the picture’s major set—a modernist “coop” in the middle of a dense forest—Ishana must have had a significant hand in imagining it as well.

But otherwise her work here is a disappointment.  The choice of source material itself is problematic: Shine’s story might work on the page, but on the screen it comes across as contrived and, in the end, rather silly; and playing it ponderously, as Shyamalan and editor Job ter Burg do, accentuates those qualities.  Abel Korzeniowski’s portentous score amplifies the problem further, though to be fair, Paul Lucien Col’s sound design for the flocks of black birds that ominously rain down at various intervals (a touch taken from Hitchcock) is pretty effective.    

After a prologue that’s one of the relatively few energetic scenes, in which a man (Alistair Brammer) runs frantically through a forest until he’s felled by that flock of CGI birds and some off-screen horror, the focus turns to Mina (Dakota Fanning), a rather sullen worker in a pet shop who’s asked by her boss to deliver a beautiful golden parrot to a buyer.  She’s a troubled person: she dons a dark wig and adopts a fake persona in linking up with a guy at a bar, and she feels guilty about the death of her mother fifteen years earlier, refusing to see her twin sister and her kids.  (A flashback in which she’s played by Hanna Dargan shows the fatal car crash her bratty behavior contributed to.)

Nonetheless she loads the caged bird—which is dubbed Darwin and has learned to repeat only one phrase, “Try not to die” (its repetition of which—in a squawk provided by Joel Figueroa—at tense points is about the only attempt at humor found in the film) in her car and is off.  Before long the car breaks down as she’s driving through the forest familiar from the prologue, and her phone loses its signal.  She wanders into the trees looking for help, only to be confronted by scrawled signs with “No return” and numbers scribbled on them, before finally coming up the shed, where a thin, gray-haired, severe woman (Olwen Fouéré) orders her to come in quickly and bolts the thick door securely once she’s entered.  As night falls the place is bombarded by the sounds of someone, or something, pounding at the door.

The old woman is called Madeline, and there are two other occupants, Ciara (Georgina Campbell), a pretty girl who enjoys dancing and happens to be the wife of John, the man we saw abducted in the prologue, and Danny (Oliver Finnegan), a nervous teen.  They soon explain to Mina that they’re prisoners, allowed to go out in the daylight as long as they’re back by nightfall, when a wall turns into a two-way mirror they must line up in front of to be observed by whatever creatures are pounding at the door.  Madeline, who appears to have been there longest, recites the rules they must follow—like never going into the tunnels the “watchers” inhabit during the day—while the obedient Ciara and Danny, who’ve been there for months, show her the ropes.

The big question, what these “watchers” look like, is gradually revealed: they’re tall, skinny, misshapen things that make clicking sounds and loud roars.  (The CGI is fairly good, especially since they’re generally shown opaquely and in darkness.)  What isn’t disclosed to any great extent are who Mina’s fellow prisoners are; they remain sketchy figures with one or two salient qualities.  Nor is the life they lead examined in any detail.  Danny hunts for game, for instance, but their single room, containing just a table, chairs, a photograph, a TV where they can watch the one DVD they possess—a season of a wretched-looking British version of “Big Brother”—doesn’t indicate a place where his kills can be cooked, or where they sleep, or how they manage to keep clean and arrange their perfect hair.  It seems we should not trouble ourselves with such pesky practical matters.

In any event, newcomer Mina takes the lead in trying to find a way to escape, and as the watchers grow more insistent about gaining entrance (even imitating a desperate John in an attempt to get Ciara to open the door), they discover, a dingy underground research lab where computer files reveal that an eccentric professor named Kilmartin (John Lynch) built the complex in order to study the faeries or changelings of Irish folklore.  He also provides a possible escape route across a lake, which they’ll attempt in a desperate gamble in which Darwin plays an integral role.  But the watchers are not keen to allow them to leave.

In truth this entire final third of the movie is, despite the highly finished visuals, a hopeless jumble, involving reams of laborious, chuckle-inducing exposition from Kilmartin’s files about the watchers’ nature and history, and an extended postscript set back in the outside world that includes a twist that’s insufficiently surprising as well as incoherent, and a further one that’s simply saccharine, involving a red-haired girl (Eabha Connolly) who might be the key to a sequel—something we definitely don’t need.

Fanning brings conviction to Mina, although frankly the character is never fleshed out to any serious degree.  The others do what the script and direction demand, which isn’t much—a disappointment in the case of Campbell, who was so strong in “Barbarian,” but less so with Fouéré, called on just to seem stern and vaguely menacing, and Finnegan, characterized by little more than a generalized twitchiness.  Darwin is a lovely parrot.

Perhaps Ms. Night Shyamalan will eventually work her way out of her father’s shadow, as Coppola has, but sadly “The Watchers,” while not as dispiriting an effort as “Lady in the Water,” isn’t much of an improvement on his recent films like “Old” and “Knock at the Cabin” (in fact, it might have been titled “Knock at the Coop”).  It establishes a genuinely creepy mood but then wastes it on a story more ridiculous than frightening, and closes with an effortful twist more likely to elicit a disgusted sigh than a pleasurable gasp.