Halloween Month Review: The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Disney's scariest film?
The horror scene changed considerably since the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). It brought forth all the subconscious American fears kicking and screaming into mainstream cinema. The damage wreaked by the violence of the Vietnam war was fresh in people's minds and the film, perhaps, if not for the first time, then at least most effectively, used it to a powerful effect. It also made gore a staple of horror films.
No wonder Disney's The Watcher in the Woods stood out as a horror film. It harkened back to the old Hammer productions that played much more on the atmosphere and the plot than acknowledge any violence that is always an unmistakable part of the genre.
Based on the novel by Florence Engel Randall, the story involves a family moving into an isolated Gothic looking house owned by the eccentric Mrs. Aylwood (Betty Davis), where her daughter Karen (Kathrine Levy) had mysteriously disappeared from a Chapel some thirty years ago.
Something lurks in the woods and soon begins haunting the daughters of the Curtis family. Mirrors crack, blue lights flash, strange dreams invade the younger of the two girls Ellie (Kyle Richards) as Karen begins to communicate with her.
What kept me interested more than the film and the characters were the '80's aesthetic. Despite being a Disney film, The Watcher in the Woods keeps threatening to become a full-blown scary ghost story and the first half is admirably spooky.
The genre mash-up it becomes, however, is more interesting than you would expect - at least, theoretically.
I will not reveal the conclusion, but the promised horror film first becomes more of a mystery and then casually segues into a science fiction story. While the first move is well-done and seems like the inevitable part of the first, the second move is less convincing.
What hurts this film the most is the lack of good characterization. Helen Curtis (Carroll Baker), the girls' mother, is supposed to be a children's book author but is never seen working and the father, apparently a musician (David McCallum) conveniently disappears from the picture half-way through. He at least has one amusing scene playing the piano.
The rest of the cast including Karen's childhood friends are sketchily drawn too. But they are all good actors and try to make the best of what they get.
It seems that people reserve the highest criticism for Lynn-Holly Johnson (who plays the main protagonist Jan Curtis). I didn't think she was especially bad but her performance becomes more unconvincing as the film progresses. Maybe, because situations become much more dramatic and demand more from as her and her character takes the centerstage in solving the mystery. It also does not help that she is required to be in almost all scenes.
(For what it's worth knowing, Lynn-Holly Johnson, a teenager here, became a "Bond Girl" the very next year with "For Your Eyes Only", starring Roger Moore!)
Bette Davis was under contract from Disney at the time and was, perhaps, left with no option but to star here. Her natural dignity adds much-needed nuance to her thinly written character and eventually, she too fares no better.
This film has a cult following of sort and many who had watched it upon release still swear by it. It is not bad and the first half is interesting but things begin to fall apart towards the end. I am not judging the film on its visual effects but as can be assumed it's rather wanting.
More a curious oddity than anything, The Watcher in the Woods is dated but has its share of spooky moments and is also makes for an interesting melange of genres. We don't really like the idea of remakes but this one is almost crying for one. The DVD is available by Anchor Bay.
EDITOR: This has already been re-made once with Anjelica Huston cast in the role of Mrs. Aylwood. That said, the results were not too bright again and there is still scope for reworking this.