It may be a dated film by today’s standards, but Walt Disney’s 1980 “The Watcher in the Woods” still brings sentimentality and suspense.
Based on the book by Florence Engel Randall and directed by John Hough, the film’s tagline, “What can’t be explained must be explored,” couldn’t be more perfect in introducing the premise of this supernatural horror classic.
When Jan Curtis (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and her family rent a house in the rural English countryside, she develops a psychic connection with the mysterious landlady, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), who sees Jan as the spitting image of her late daughter Karen (Katherine Levy).
Jan and her little sister Ellie (Kyle Richards, “Lindsey!” from Halloween) immediately experience unexplained and supernatural events inside the house. Even more frightening, Jan can’t see her own reflection in the mirror.
Ellie names the newly adopted family dog, NERAK, spelled KAREN backward.
As Jan flirts with her boyfriend-to-be, Mike Fleming (Benedict Taylor), his mother, Mary (Frances Cuka), begins to panic at the sight of KAREN displayed on the window.
The ghost of Karen continues to reveal herself blindfolded to Jan while a strange spirit subdues and channels messages through Ellie.
Mrs. Aylwood shares the backstory of her daughter’s disappearance after rescuing Jan from drowning in the pond from an unearthed force.
She reveals how Karen vanished during an eclipse inside a circled séance amongst teenage friends at the abandoned church.
By the time Mrs. Aylwood arrived, the chapel was engulfed in flames with no signs of Karen ever found, bringing a dooming cloud over everyone involved for thirty years.
Plagued with more near-death accidents during the motorcycle race and at horseback riding, Jan also saves Ellie and her mother (Carrol Baker) from their car plunging down the bridge. On a mission to help Karen and protect her family from the unknown destructive spirit that torments them, Jan leads the day under the shadow of a new eclipse.
After much resistance and fear, John Keller (Ian Bannen), Tom Colley (Richard Pasco), and Mary return as the original circle around Jan, who risks it all to bring back Karen from the “unknown place” and put “the Watcher” at rest.
The cinematography of Alan Hume holds an effective and haunting supernatural force, with shots framing a “following” POV on foot.
I can feel the unearthly presence of someone or something watching from behind the trees, a technique that made this film achievable.
In addition, Jan’s bizarre encounter with the funhouse mirrors is visually reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s celebrated Enter the Dragon.
Vincent McEveety is uncredited as co-director and, at Disney’s request, replaced Hough in the reshoot of the film’s finale. Personally, I think the second alternate ending builds more tension during Jan’s séance involving a metal-like alien insect creature.
The 2017 Lifetime Channel remake from Melissa Hart doesn’t have that same haunting ambiance. But respectfully, it does its own take on the backstory of Karen’s disappearance.
There are far too many near-death experiences recycled and small moments of overacting.
However, I wouldn’t change the casting, as Johnson, Richards, and Davis have superb chemistry.
The long-awaited 2021 release onto Blu-Ray, unfortunately, feels very dismissive by Disney, as it’s a duplicate of their DVD.
I was anticipating commentaries and interviews with Johnson, Richards, and Taylor, at the least. Shoot, Anchor Bay’s 2002 DVD release had a director’s commentary. Short bonus segments, including Davis’s legacy and a literary scholar background on Randall’s novel, would have added nostalgia to the physical media release.
Sadly, that same bare minimum was also given to another highly anticipated “Disney Club” Blu-Ray release that year, Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Disney, please take notes from Shout Factory and Arrow.
Filmed in 1980, this classic is sophisticated for its time. It demonstrated Disney dipping their feet into the darker side of storytelling, outside of their typical animated villains.
Davis’s stand-alone performance as Mrs. Aylwood still carves a huge impression on me decades later.
The Watcher in the Woods is a true supernatural craft.