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Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Do not rent creepy ass English manor houses, especially if you are an American family with kids. This is a simple rule that the Curtis family fails to abide by in Disney’s The Watcher in the Woods. Based on the book by Florence Engel Randall this easily is one of the better Disney live action movies of the time. Genuinely scary and well-crafted by director John Hough this movie will send shivers down the spine of any lover of ghost stories.

Helen (Carroll Baker) and Paul Curtis (David McCallum) and their two daughters Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and Ellie (Kyle Richards) are looking for a nice place to stay while in England and when shown a wonderfully charming English manor that seems to be perfect, and at an astounding low rent, they decide to take it. Before taking possession they have to meet with approval by the owner Mrs. Alywood (Bette Davis) and they get it after Jan has a creepy interrogation with Mrs. Aylwood. It seems Mrs. Alywood had a daughter that went missing under tragic circumstances and Jan may remind the old woman of her.

Creepy foreboding manor. *Check*

Creepy and eccentric old lady. *Check*

Neither of these two factors can deter Helen and Paul from such a good deal, but unlike Jan they didn’t see a strange glow in the woods or feel its dark presence. Also when Jan placed her hand on a bedroom window it cracked into triangle fracture cutting her finger. The first clue to the mystery of the woods.

The house draws first blood.

Later while unpacking Jan puts up a god-awful tacky mirror, but it’s not the golden cherubs that are the most frightening element, no it’s the fact that Jan doesn’t seem to have a reflection in the mirror.

“So that mean I’m a vampire, right?”

The mirror cracks into another triangle fracture but within the fracture is the image of a girl in a blindfold, her arms reaching out for help. Then the mirror completely shatters and topples to the floor.

Okay, that is just a little hair-raising.

Unfortunately for Jan she is just a young girl in a horror story so nobody believes her. Her family aren’t dicks about it they just brushed it off as overactive imagination. Which honestly is what most people would do and the Curtis family do come off as one of the better ones found in horror films.
Really it’s just best to avoid mirrors all together.

More and more disturbing events pile up; the girls hear whispering in their bedrooms, Ellie names her new puppy Narek after a voice told her to (she writes it on a dirty window so from the other side we see it as Karen, the name of the missing girl), Jan almost drowns when a flash of blue light in the water spills her into its depths where she is trapped by submerged branches, but she is saved by the timely intervention of Mrs. Aylwood.

Creepy forest of horror *check*

It’s from Mrs. Aylwood that we find out about the night many years ago when her 17 year daughter Karen snuck out of the house to play with three friends; Mary, Tom Colley, and John Keller at the ruins of an old chapel during an eclipse. When Mrs. Aylwood arrived at the chapel lightning struck the old ruins setting everything ablaze. All the kids escaped, all but Karen. They searched and searched but her body was never found.

Did they look in the coffin?

More and more mysterious events plague poor Jan and her sister; strange voices and humming in the woods, premonitions warning of danger, wild winds kicking up out of nowhere, all hinging on the disappearance of Karen thirty years ago. Jan goes into Nancy Drew mode and begins to investigate in earnest. She tracks down the three survivors of that night at the chapel but only hermit Tom Colley gives up the details; apparently Karen had been brought blindfolded to the chapel to undergo an initiation to join their “Secret Society”

Who knew playing weird games during an eclipse at an old chapel could end badly.

But during the ritual a storm blew up during the eclipse, lightning hit the chapel, the three other kids fled in terror as the chapel was engulfed in flames and leaving poor blindfolded Karen behind. Later Tom told how he had looked back just as the chapel bell collapsed where Karen had been standing, but she was no longer there. No one believed Tom as there was no other way out of the chapel.


When Helen Curtis witnesses Ellie in some fugue state, as forces unknown channel demands that they find “the door” before its to late; she grabs both her daughters, packs their things, and flees the house. This is a completely reasonable response to seeing your daughter possessed and not one seen enough in horror films today. Unfortunately for dear Helen it is too late as the force in the woods will not let them leave. Their car dies on a rickety bridge and it’s only Jan’s premonition of danger that gets them out of the car and off the bridge before lightning strikes it.

The Watcher does not fuck around.

The next morning back at the manor dominoes begin to fall when Ellie reminds Jan that today is the day of the eclipse and that “They hardly ever happen” with that tidbit added to all the other mysterious events that have occurred it leads Jan to believe that they must re-enact the ritual bring back Karen. Jan is able to convince Mary (Frances Cuka) Tom Colley (Richard Pasco) and John Keller (Ian Bannen) to come back to the chapel and maybe, just maybe find out what happened to Karen.


Things get a bit dodgy now as there are three different cuts to the ending of this movie. Originally when they perform the ritual the “Watcher in the Woods” manifests in the chapel and it is strange alien creature that then grabs Jan and takes her to another dimension to where we find poor Karen who has been trapped there, suspended in time for thirty years.

Apparently Jan found the Tardis.

Jan walks over to Karen, who is in some kind of light field, grabs her hands and they are whisked through time and space back to the chapel. We learn that when these four kids did the ritual it caused and accidental exchange resulting in Karen being stuck aboard a strange otherworldly dimensional space craft and the alien trapped in the woods on Earth. Sadly critics and audiences alike laughed at the puppeteered monstrosity so the ending was greatly trimmed and released a year later with major alterations.

Where’s Jim Henson and the gang when you need them?

Actually the stuff aboard the alien craft never even got released as it looked even goofier than the alien puppet, all audiences originally saw was the alien appear, embrace Jan and vanish and then Jan reappeared with Karen and everyone is reunited for a happy ending.

“I am not a happy ending.”

The cut that got released a year later, and is the only one currently part of the movie today on video, has Ellie showing up during the ritual and once again possessed by The Watcher. She/It explains clearly what happened thirty years ago, going on about a magnetic pull of the eclipse caused the dimensional door to open and Karen and The Watcher to change places, and with but a flash of light Karen is returned. Mrs. Aylwood shows up out of nowhere and hugs her daughter. Fade to black. It’s a bit of an abrupt ending to say the least and doesn’t give much closure.

Possessing little girls since 1980.

None of the endings work completely on their own, but all of them are really fascinating to watch. This is really when Disney started to make films for a wider audience and was released through Buena Vista Distribution which became their main arm of adult films.  You also have to give them credit for being one of the first movies to start in one genre and then end up with, “It was aliens.”


The Watcher in the Woods has had a few DVD releases with the one from Anchor Bay being the best, but there is a good chance your local library may have some version on hand and it is certainly well worth checking out.

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