As part of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood’s Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, I’m taking a look at the 1981 family horror movie “The Watcher In The Woods” and kicking off my own mini-series looking at a strange period of movie history when Disney went dark.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Walt Disney Pictures made a conscious decision to target the young adult market, a common enough practice now (“The Hunger Games”, “Twilight”, “Divergent” etc.) but way ahead of its time back then. In order to do this, they embarked on a production slate which would see them expand away from their bright and breezy wholesome family image and stray into edgier territory.
One of the first to make it into cinemas was John Hough’s adaptation of Florence Engel Randall’s novel “The Watcher In The Woods”. While technically retaining its family viewing suitability, Hough assembled his film in the same way one would any great horror movie: bags of atmosphere, a build-up of dread and escalating mysteries and some amazing camera work – reminiscent of early Sam Raimi – combined with some genuinely unsettling imagery.
When the Curtis family move to England and look for a house to rent, they are drawn to a stately manor house owned by Mrs Aylwood (Bette Davis), who lives in the guest cottage next door. Noticing that the Curtis’ eldest daughter Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) bears a strong resemblance to her daughter Karen who mysteriously disappeared inside an abandoned chapel in the woods thirty years previous and agrees to rent the house to the family. When the children start to experience sinister supernatural events, it becomes clear that something is lurking in the woods, something that may have taken Karen thirty years ago and is now interested in Jan.
What’s really interesting about “The Watcher In The Woods” – among all the ‘Dark Disney’ productions – is how little separates it from being a straightforward horror movie. Admittedly, the pacing is somewhat brisker than you’d expect for an adult-orientated haunted house tale, there’s little real violence and no gore, nudity or profanity but aside from those limitations, it treats its subject and the audience in a very adult fashion.
Director John Hough and his cinematographer Alan Hume make the most of their clearly parsimonious budget, creating a woodland which is simultaneously inviting and ethereally foreboding. Unafraid of allowing the film to revel and bask in its visuals, it has frequent quiet moments, helping to build up the tone and atmosphere of the film without relying on music or dialogue to enhance the mood.
The film’s weaknesses are only really exposed when it comes to the acting. Not by Davis, though. Although firmly in the twilight of her illustrious career – she would only make two more theatrical appearances after this film, although several TV roles also lay ahead – she is absolutely tremendous in this, anchoring the creepy weirdness of the film’s tone with a real gravitas and pathos the story nearly doesn’t deserve. There’s an effortlessness to her performance that not only elevates her above everyone and everything in the picture but also brutally exposes just how poor some of the rest of the cast are. In retrospect, it seems cruel to put someone as wooden as Lynn-Holly Johnson (just a year away from her most famous role as would-be Bond girl Bibi Dahl in “For Your Eyes Only”) up against a legendary performer such as Davis. The film always feels more substantial when Davis is on the screen and weakens considerably when left to rely on Johnson or her co-stars.
Ultimately Disney chickened out at the last minute following less than stellar early screening and, in a panic, ordered the ending rewritten and reshot to be slightly less scary but it still works as a conclusion to the story. Deliberately weird and dark and creepy, “The Watcher In The Woods” is a genuinely scary movie, yet still undeniably Disney, aimed at older kids but ever once pandering to them. While it may not have been a box office success, it deserves a latter-day reappraisal, especially now it can be compared with the Melissa Joan-Hart-directed, Angelica Huston-starring Lifetime movie remake to compare it to and if you’ve never seen it, treat yourself. And then, if only to see how dark Disney were originally willing to go, check out the link below to the original filmed ending, before the reshoots.