Horror

‘The A-Frame’ Tribeca Review – A Sci-fi Horror Comedy With a Macabre Sense of Justice

There’s a simplicity to writer/director Ishana Night Shyamalan’s feature debut, The Watchers, an adaptation of the novel by A.M. Shine. The horror fairy tale traps four strangers in a mysterious forest untethered from reality, where they must observe a handful of straightforward rules to appease the inhuman things that come to observe them every night. It’s a setup that presents fertile ground to mine chills from Irish folklore and psychological distress, but Shyamalan gets too caught up in mythological exposition to instill any tension or scares.

The Watchers follows Mina (Dakota Fanning), an aloof loner who fled from her past traumas and mistakes to Ireland, where she doodles away at her quiet job at a pet store. Mina’s past remains a closely guarded secret, but it’s clear the distance has done nothing to close those wounds. Naturally, she finds herself confronting her past in an unexpected way when she’s tasked with driving a bird to a client that takes her through the Irish countryside, and her car breaks down in a foggy wood.

Mina is lured to a shelter where she finds fellow trapped travelers Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), Ciara (Barbarian’s Georgina Campbell), and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan, “Creeped Out”). The strangers attempt to guide Mina through the simple rules to appease their inhuman voyeurs, but she’s willing to break them if it leads to escape.

And breaking the rules comes with deadly consequences.

The Watchers trailer

Shyamalan, like her lead protagonist, keeps the story and its characters shrouded in mystery for as long as possible, instead focusing on the ambient atmosphere and building up the threat with various intense near-misses and rule-defying encounters. The strong visual language and production design help lure you in, along with Shyamalan’s attempts to establish the unseen Watchers as something fearsome, and it’s easy to overlook just how underdeveloped the story and its characters are. But the more time passes, the less the humans’ choices make sense. Shyamalan seems to realize this, because when the movie finally seems to pick up its intensity for a third act confrontation, the filmmaker screeches the momentum to a halt to deliver nonstop exposition too superficial and clumsy to work. 

Worse, The Watchers has too many endings. There’s a moment when this fairy tale reaches a fitting stopping point, but Shyamalan pushes on with a tedious, drawn-out second conclusion that continues to overexplain what’s happening. Considering how sparse this folktale already is and the predictable path it follows, The Watchers struggles to find the energy to reach the end credits. 

Trapping four strangers in a mystical place for months, far removed from safety or the comforts of civilization, should wreak more havoc on them psychologically. Shyamalan only dabbles fleetingly with the psychological element, never pushing her characters too hard or making their random mental breaks feel plausible or organic. It’s feature debut that’s competently shot with a  compelling performance by Fanning, who brings emotional depth to a paper-thin role, but an uneven narrative structure and lack of tension makes for a droll bedtime story that doesn’t quite trust its audience to follow along. 

It’s too gentle of a grim fairy tale, even one with a PG-13 rating, too lean, and too familiar. Of all the Irish folktales, The Watcher sticks with the most well-trodden. The production design and initial setup make for a beguiling lure, but the stakes are too low, and the scares too few, to compensate for the clunky storytelling.

The Watchers releases in theaters on June 7, 2024.

2 skulls out of 5

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