Monday, November 11, 2019

The Watcher in the Woods

Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood.
If absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder, then it may make the brain more curious. For me, that was the case with Walt Disney Productions' The Watcher in the Woods (1981), which I recently viewed again for the first time in 38 years.

It opens with the Curtis family renting a "secluded" English country mansion from their mysterious new neighbor Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). Almost immediately, the two Curtis children, Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and Ellie (Kyle Richard), experience weird events. Jan can't see her reflection in a mirror, which then reveals an image of a blindfolded teenage girl and shatters into small pieces. Ellie says her new puppy wants to be called Nerak and writes the name on a dirty window (spelling "Karen" from the other side).

Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Aylwood, whose young daughter tragically disappeared many years earlier, stands out in the woods and states solemnly: "She's going to stay here. Is that what you wanted?"

Based on Florence Engel Randall's 1976 novel, The Watcher in the Woods was an attempt by Disney to attract a young adult audience. To its credit, it's not a conventional ghost story and the setting, especially the old stately home and a dilapidated chapel, evokes an effective semi-Gothic atmosphere. However, in a movie like this, the payoff needs to be a whopper and The Watcher in the Woods fails to deliver one.

It doesn't help that the script is riddled with cardboard characters that waste the talents of a good cast. David McCallum and Carroll Baker, as Jan and Ellie's parents, have literally nothing to do in the final version of the film (more on that later). Bette Davis fares better simply because she has more scenes.

Kyle Richards as Ellie.
That leaves it to the young actors to carry the film and their efforts are spotty at best. Lynn-Holly Johnson is photogenic and likable, but her thespian skills are strictly high school-level. She was much better in the earlier Ice Castles (1978), perhaps because she skated competitively and could connect with her character. As her sister, Kyle Richard seems natural and therefore much more convincing. Kyle's sister, Kim, also acted in Disney movies (Escape from Witch Mountain, also with Bette Davis). Years later, the Richard sisters would appear on the reality show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Disney originally hired Brian Clemens to write the screenplay. Clemens, best known for The Avengers TV series and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, turned in a script deemed too dark for Disney's desired audience. It was subsequently rewritten multiple times and credited to three writers.

The creatures from the alternate endings.
When the film made its theatrical debut in 1980, it was thrashed by critics and moviegoers alike. The most common complaint was that the ending was confusing. After less than two weeks in release, it was pulled from theaters. The ending was rewritten (at least twice), the running time was trimmed, and additional footage shot. The revised version of The Watcher in the Woods was released in 1981. That's the one my wife and I saw at an Indiana drive-in. When the film was released on DVD many years later, the bonus feature included two of the alternate endings.

It's worth noting that The Watcher in the Woods has connections with two more successful ghostly movies. The spooky mansion featured in Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) is the same one where the Curtis family lives. And John Hough, who helmed The Legend of Hell House in 1973, directed The Watcher in the Woods.

Here's the second alternate ending, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel. It provides additional scenes for Bette Davis and Carroll Baker and clarifies the origin of the creatures living in the woods.



2 comments:

  1. I think the publicity of the muddled ending kept me away from this one, but now I am curious. Where I used to be affronted, I don't take missteps personally any more.

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  2. I just watched the clip and I completely agree with your assessment of Lynn-Holly Johnson's performance. It's hard to watch, especially when she's with Bette Davis.

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