Written by: Bill Freed, Damien Lee (screenplay), and Dean Koontz (novel)
Directed by: Jon Hess
Starring: Corey Haim, Michael Ironside and Christopher Cary
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
It started as a secret experiment... It ended up as a new breed of terror.
By 1988, Stephen King had been kicking a lot of ass cinematically-speaking, while Dean Koontz…well, hadn’t, to put it nicely. Whereas King found his works adapted by the likes of De Palma, Hooper (when he was awesome), Kubrick, Romero, Cronenberg, and Carpenter, Koontz's work was sidelined during the 80s until Jon Hess directed Watchers, a serviceable film that seemingly loosed the floodgates a bit for more Koontz adaptations in the 90s. For Watchers, someone (maybe producer Roger Corman) must have noticed that Corey Haim did pretty well as the wheelchair-bound protagonist in King’s Silver Bullet, so here he is in Watchers, albeit sans wheelchair.
Instead, he has a super smart dog in tow after a golden retriever escapes a military lab that explodes under mysterious circumstances. And they stay mysterious too--no one questions what feels like a blatant act of terrorism; instead, a group of government cronies (headed by Michael Ironside!) is more worried about tracking down the pup and its companion: a ravenous, mutated monster named OXCOM that’s been bred to wreak havoc on the battlefield. Now on the loose, it’s ravaging the nearby small town, where the golden retriever takes a liking to Travis (Haim), a high school kid who becomes his de facto escort as they attempt to…well, I guess they’re just getting the hell out of dodge. It’s not like the dog can communicate or give Haimster any real orders or anything.
Well, actually, he can. Not only can he answer questions via barking, but the dog (affectionately dubbed “Fur Face” by his human minion) can also type on keyboards and even play Scrabble. It’s actually a pretty incredible performance, and I daresay one of the most impressive in 1988 because the dog brings a better depth of expression than most human beings do when they’re saddled in a movie like this. Luckily, Sandy the Dog wasn’t aware enough to realize she was slumming it in a silly monster movie produced by Roger Corman, so she doesn’t mail it in. To its credit, Watchers doesn’t run away from its concept, and there’s an inherent sort of boneheaded charm in watching Corey Haim and an uber-sentient dog go on the lam in an effort to elude both the government and its mutant.
Unfortunately, this is about all they do, as the film is largely one giant chase scene that takes several detours that allow the mutant to dole out some fairly grisly dispatches that leave its victims without any eyes (or worse in the case of the poor guy who loses his entire head). As such, the film has a little slashery dressing on the side whenever the mutant shows up to prey on some loosely connected characters, such as Travis’s classmates (Jason Priestley is among their ranks) and his keyboarding teacher who gets his face splattered all over an Apple II. The attacks aren’t staged with any real inventiveness since the monster is mostly hidden until the finale, so we occasionally glimpse a mangled corpse before Travis and Fur-Face decide their next course of action. While the film is mostly limp, there’s a little bit to like: Haim is at the height of his teen idol powers, while Ironside is delightfully sinister as the two-faced government agent. A pair of bumpkin cops--one of whom is convinced that Sasquatch is responsible for the killings--are fun, and it bears repeating that Haim is chumming around with a hyper-intelligent dog.
They end up in the requisite backwoods climax where, surrounded by a shroud of fog and pines, they’re forced to fend off both Ironside and his pet mutant. It’s all very by-the-numbers thanks to the chaotic lensing that continues to render the monster a blurry, rubbery mess. A few good shots bring us face to face with it to lessen the thudding sense of anticlimax, but it’s all standard monster movie junk that doesn’t even have a nice money shot. Though Corman’s name is attached, this is one of his better producing efforts from this time-period since Watchers is armed with slick and competent production values that do their best to outrun the obvious budget restrictions. If not for the notable gore quotient, the film would feel like a glorified made-for-TV movie. Somewhat remarkably, Paul Haggis originally wrote the script for Watchers, but a WGA strike prevented him from doing further work, so the project was handed off to Damien Lee, who turned in the final draft. Disapproving of the rewrite, Haggis took his name off the script and opted for the pseudonym Bill Freed before toiling around in television work until his big Hollywood break nearly 20 years later.
The end result is a passable attempt to bring Koontz’s material to the screen; hell, Corman must have thought it was more than passable, as he impossibly went on to make three more films in the series before putting it down in 1998. The first two movies showed up on a DVD double feature from Artisan almost ten years ago, but it’s long out of print, thus leaving Watchers fans in the lurch. Netflix recently came to the rescue by streaming the original in widescreen (whereas the DVD was full-frame). It’s even in HD, but you might want to hurry since it’s expiring on September 1st. If nothing else, Watchers is a nice time capsule that features two of Canada's better 80s exports in Haim and Ironside, and it's an unabashedly dumb, charming little creature feature at times. Rent it!
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