3 March 2005 | BrandtSponseller
We get that it's not exactly like the book; it's not supposed to be
When a saboteur blows up a controversial government research lab, two experimental animals are loosed in a small community in Washington State. One is a dog with unusual intelligence. The other is an "Outside eXperimental COmbat Mammal", or "OXCOM". Because of reasons divulged further into the film, the oxcom hates the dog, and so is trying to kill it. Watchers concerns the accidental involvement of Travis Cornell (Corey Haim), his mom Nora (Barbara Williams) and his girlfriend Tracey (Lala Sloatman) with the dog and oxcom, as two National Security Organization agents, Lem Johnson (Michael Ironside) and Cliff (Blu Mankuma), track them down.
Many comments are made about Watchers being very different than the Dean Koontz book that serves as the launching pad for the film. This is true. But it should not affect your rating. If you want the book, read the book. Judge the film on its own merits, not how closely it matches the book. Bill Freed and Damian Lee, who wrote the screenplay, are just as much artists as Koontz is (that's not a quality comparison, just a statement that they're all artists). So is director Jon Hess. Their job as filmmakers isn't to slavishly follow the book as if it were a script. They're adapting the book, as artists, to make a unique artwork. It's based on the book. Not identical to it. You have to loosen your preconceptions/expectations when you watch the film, because you're going to be experiencing an artwork that you are not already familiar with, even if you've read Koontz' novel.
So, is Watchers a good film? It's pretty good, not excellent. Good enough to earn a "B", or an 8. Hess begins things on the right foot with one of the most beautifully filmed explosions I've seen in awhile. Unfortunately, he trips a bit immediately afterward as we listen to some very thick, jargonistic exposition. After that scene Watchers threatens to become a clichéd 1980s film as we first meet Travis and Tracey.
Veering towards cliché is a tendency continually threatened. But it is only a skew. More often than not, Hess is able to transcend well-trodden territory with a number of interesting twists: Both Travis and Tracey are from single parent homes, with their genders flipped. Both have unique, mature relationships with their parents. Although this is a horror film, a major focus is a cute, intelligent canine, and it often feels as much like an adventure film as it does horror, a thriller, or sci-fi, which are all genres it touches upon. Hess introduces a large cast of characters, some not entering until late in the game, yet the film is never confusing and no characters feel as if they are left in the dust--all of the threads are nicely tied up in the end. The structure is also complex in that there are two major villains, the second becoming less obviously ill-intentioned as the film progresses, until a twist accompanied by brutal violence makes one antagonist clearer. Soon after, Hess gives us a nice moment of doubt with the other antagonist.
The biggest flaw in my eyes is a dreaded, common one with horror films since at least the 1980s--the "attack" scenes are shot too darkly, too close, too out of focus, and they're edited too choppily. It makes it extremely difficult to tell what's going on, which saps most of the tension from scenes that should be a highlight. Surely, part of Hess' motivation for the style, and this is the typical justification for this problem, was worry that the creature would come across as humorous and/or fake rather than frightening and suspenseful. In my view, presenting the audience with a dizzying blur isn't a satisfactory solution. We only get to see the creature costume/makeup clearly towards the end of the film. It was well done enough that better shot and edited attack scenes would have brought the film up to at least a 9.
Regardless of the degree of correspondence between the novel and the film, Watchers presents a gripping story using smart, alluring characters. It is frequently a nail-biter and the horror scenes are more feral than you might expect, if not exactly gory (although there is a fair amount of blood in a couple scenes). Watchers tends to be underrated because of misconceptions about the role of film when it comes to adapting literature--don't pass it up or summarily dismiss it based on a misconception.