What are we watching?: A critical review of “The Watcher in the Woods” (1981)

So another Halloween has come and gone, although it’s left us with a gift. No, not the hangover, the cavities or the outfit we can only wear again in a year–is it harder to reuse costumes with social media nowadays? I wouldn’t know. But I’m talking about the scary movies that are still buzzing around. Lifetime left us with an interesting one. Melissa Joan Hart–yet, that Melissa Joan Hart–directed a film called “The Watcher in the Woods,”
based on a book of the same name. But that’s not the subject of this review. No, instead we’ve got “Watcher in the Woods” from some 35 years ago or so, an attempt by Disney to break out of its mouse-eared image. How successful was it? That’s the matter of some debate.

Also, there’s some eclipse stuff in here too–I was trying to tie this one in with the eclipse movies from earlier. Of course, we all saw how that worked out. All I got was a late fee at the library.

Initially at least, it does look like we are viewing a darker, edgier Disney. The opening sequence contains a lot of moody photography and spooky trees, which effectively straddle the line between Disney’s daytime and horror’s night. Of course, then the credits fade. The Curtis family, a load of Americans, is house hunting in England, and they’ve stumbled upon an antique mansion owned by the enigmatic Mrs. Aylwood (the legendary Bette Davis), who has forsaken the main house for the guest quarters since her daughter disappeared a few decades ago during an eclipse.

Naturally, the family’s two daughters start seeing shades of someone or something around the house, the nearby village and, yes, the woods. I don’t want to say too much more, because there’s actually kind of an interesting turn at the end. Suffice to say that things get a little cosmic horror-y before it’s all over, although it’s over in a slightly uncomfortable rush.

The film looks quite good–not just well produced, but artfully shot for a kid’s film and sensitively photographed for a horror film. Well, that part at least makes sense. It was directed by John Hough, who shot, among other things, “Legend of Hell House,” “Twins of Evil” and, um, “Howling 4.” The cinematography was by Hough collaborator Alan Hume; the editing, by film vet Geoffrey Foot, is likewise well done.

There are also, perhaps surprisingly, a few jump scare in the film, and the atmosphere is just fine. It’s at its best when it sticks to mist-soaked trees and dark, cluttered rooms. Not to mention there’s something rather strange about a blindfolded girl (just watch the mirror room scene–it’s more trippy than scary, but it’s still a trip).

Unfortunately, Hough doesn’t do much with his actors. Lynn-Holly Johnson as our heroine Jan, the elder Curtis daughter, starts out fine. But, while she could have ended up increasingly scared or certain of herself or anything, she just ends up sort of being whiny. Davis probably does the best, but she has the most experience and chops, so that’s understandable, although her makeup at that point was starting to resemble Baby Jane a little too well.

This might be more of a script issue (there are three names attached to the screenplay, not counting Florence Engel Randall as the original novelist, which is never a good sign). None of the characters are that engaging. Some of them are downright annoying. Benedict Taylor as local farm boy Mike Fleming probably takes the cake. “Look, this may not be any of my business. Want to talk about it?” he asks Jan rather bluntly. What a nosy parker. And later, he flat out tells his mother at the breakfast table: “There’s something about those woods that’s always bothered you.” This after a girl he’s just met told him his dear old mum might have been involved in a murder. Well, of course the woods have always bothered her. Just look at them. They’re creepy as shit.

The film is also a little less effective when it comes to building up the mystery. There’s a build up to a mystery involving a remote pond that seems to barter in geometric shapes, almost like a bargain version of “The Ring.” Well, not quite. In one scene, the girl when the girl is trying to think of a name for a new puppy, she spells out the word “NERAK” in backwards facing letters on a dirty window. Hmm, I wonder what that could mean? Indeed, for a film that’s less than 90 minutes long, it relies pretty heavily on formula. Someone gets into trouble. Some Bernard Herman rip-off strings, punctuated by a sting of brass, starts playing. A supernatural force seemingly saves said someone. Rinse. Repeat.

Finally, the film is a little lax when it comes to its themes. For example, there was this weird sense of attraction between the elder Curtis daughter and Aylwood, although it’s never fully explored. It’s paternal at best, practical at worst. I was hoping for something a bit more psycho-sexual–disclaimer, my favorite novel is “Turn of the Screw”–but that might have been a bit too much to ask of a Disney movie. Which, of course, might be part of the problem. Not that it’s a Disney movie, but that’s it’s a Disney movie with pretensions to live up to something like “Turn of the Screw.” That’s a tough role to fill. Even Guillermo del Toro had problems with “Crimson Peak”–and he had a superb cast and design.

Of course, Karen–that was the disappearing daughter’s name, in case you hadn’t guessed–was playing a game with a boy and a blindfold the night she vanished. Maybe there’s hope.

By the way, if you do decide to watch the film, please get the DVD. For one thing, a quick glance at the trailers reveals that Disney was indeed trying to do something quite different with this film. More importantly, there are a couple of alternative endings that resemble the used ending to the same extent that bananas resemble road kill. The first one might be the best, as it amps up the cosmic horror by way of H. R. Giger; the second is a little longer, and it smooths out some of the rough edges of the used ending, but it might show just a little too much, which detracts from some of the film’s mystery. And remember, mystery, for better or for worse, is what “Watcher in the Woods” is all about.