They Watch (1993): That’s the Spirit

Dave takes in a compelling Showtime original movie with roots in a tragic real-life incident.

Always (1989), Truly Madly Deeply (1990), box office sensation Ghost (1990) – back in the early ’90s, the afterlife was topic du jour. For Showtime and their growing roster of trend-tailing ‘original’ films, a surprising source of inspiration for their own entry in this wave of hijinks from the hereafter came from the creator of The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling.

While in New York on a book tour in 1899, Kipling and his eldest daughter, Josephine, contracted pneumonia. The author recovered. Sadly, six year-old Josephine died. Struggling with grief, Kipling wrote They: a short story about remorse, sorrow and the wealth of other emotions that come with the death of a child.

Updating and relocating Kipling’s tale from rural Sussex to modern America’s Deep South, THEY WATCH concerns Mark Samuels (Patrick Bergin): an ambitious, workaholic architect whose dedication to his career frequently finds him sidelining his family. After missing another of his daughter Nikki’s (Nancy Moore Atchison) dance recitals, tragedy strikes when the vehicle Mark’s wife (Valerie Mahaffey) is driving is ran off the road and Nikki is killed. Unwilling to grieve and wracked with guilt over the lack of care he devoted to his relationship with his little girl, Mark’s life starts to unravel until a strange painting appears in his briefcase. Sketched by Nikki, it depicts an old plantation house that he’s soon compelled to find. When he does, he befriends the blind lady (Vanessa Redgrave) who lives there and discovers that this unusual property is occupied by the lost souls of dead children – one of whom is Nikki.

A justifiable epitome of the term ‘slow burn’, They Watch is a treatise on loss, grief, and healing – though its absence on home media is unlikely to unleash a stampede from the boutiques to get it out in 1080p. Having said that, it’s a commendable celluloid secret; an atmospheric journey into the great unknown which, despite its PG rating, retains a power to unsettle.

The two leads are absorbing. Redgrave featured in the CableACE awards, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance, and Bergin – an actor whose work I often struggle with – brings an understated complexity to Mark that must be admired. The strength of the combo wasn’t lost on critics at the time either, with Ray Loynd marvelling “how Bergin and Redgrave pull off their roles without turning the movie into a forlorn and exploitable-looking thriller is testament to the filmmakers skills.” [1]

Speaking of which, adapting Kipling’s elegiac yarn for the screen is Brooklyn-born screenwriter Edithe Swensen, who, after wowing Laurel Entertainment, the company co-founded by George A. Romero, penned a good few episodes of their small screen anthology shows Tales from the Darkside and Monsters. In the director’s chair, meanwhile, and adding further credibility to this impressive TV movie is John Korty. Hailing from the Bay area, Korty’s film The Crazy-Quilt (1966) drew immense critical acclaim and even lured an impressed Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas north of Hollywood to check out his Stinson Beach studio, just prior to them creating American Zoetrope twenty-five miles away in 1969.

They Watch aired on Showtime in November 1993 under its original title, ‘They’, and popped up on network television as ‘Children of the Mist’ just before the turn of the millennium. To confuse matters further, the old Columbia-TriStar VHS here in the U.K. sports the title ‘The Lost Souls’.

France/USA ● 1993 ● Drama, TVM ● 100mins

Patrick Bergin, Vanessa Redgrave, Valerie Mahaffey, Brandlyn Whitaker ● Dir. John Korty ● Wri. Edithe Swensen, based upon the short story ‘They’ by Rudyard Kipling

[1] They: A Gossamer Thread of Emotion by Ray Loynd, Los Angeles Times, 19th November 1993.

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