Disney // 1980 // 83 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // June 3rd, 2005
Something is watching. Something unknown.
The re-release of Disney's The Watcher in the Woods gives viewers another chance to discover this spooky family film on DVD. Based on the novel by Florence Engel Randall, it relates the adventures of an American teen named Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson, Ice Castles), who with her family moves into an old English mansion owned by the mysterious Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). Seemingly supernatural events begin to occur, and Jan believes they emanate from the ominous wood that lies at their front door. When the uncanny forces begin to single out Jan's little sister Ellie (Kyle Richards) as well, Jan realizes she must get to the bottom of the mystery, which seems to be connected to the disappearance of Mrs. Aylwood's daughter 30 years before.
The Watcher in the Woods had the potential to be a good old-school ghost story. It has all the elements that give me a pleasant anticipatory glow: a big old house with suspiciously low rent; a foreboding oldster lurking about, obviously knowing more than she's telling; a mysterious death/disappearance that's still unsolved; a half-mad local who offers cryptic clues; and as a bonus, that staple of horror films, the little kid who starts acting possessed. The presence of Bette Davis, giving one of the more understated performances of her later years (although that's not saying much), was also promising, as was the fact that the original Hill House from 1963's The Haunting was one of the shooting locations.
Yet the movie didn't work for me. Part of my disappointment was due to the bait-and-switch plot, which I can't discuss in detail without giving a spoiler; I'll content myself with saying that the film is not what it sets itself up as being, and I liked what it set itself up as being. The proliferation of endings offered as extras didn't help; each has its own problems, which aren't limited to the cheesy special effects. (In the case of the longer alternate ending, excruciatingly cheesy.) Again, I can't go into detail without spoiling the plot, but the endings all simplistically assume that a certain event is an unmitigated success when it actually comes with a troubling consequence, which goes completely unacknowledged.
A much greater irritant, however, was the film's heroine as portrayed by Lynn-Holly Johnson. I'm not even sure how to convey how annoying Johnson is, with her breathy delivery, wide-eyed Bambi gaze of panic, and hysterical outbursts. She even seems to drag the other actors down to her level, as when she confronts a reclusive neighbor (Ian Bannen, Braveheart) on his doorstep. Earlier, talking with another character, Bannen turns in a tolerable performance; but as soon as Jan ambushes him into a conversation, his voice rises like hers, his tone gets more anguished, and altogether he seems to have decided to compete with her for Most Tormented Character (or at least Most Tormenting). I didn't actually wish Jan ill, as I have characters in other films -- the obnoxious leads in The Blair Witch Project leap to mind -- but I found myself groaning whenever she spoke, which is probably not the response the actress was going for. Tied with Jan as the most annoying character (sorry, Mr. Bannen) was the camera, which lurks, skulks, tiptoes, peers over shoulders and around corners, and generally makes itself a terrible nuisance as it shows us over and over that there's something watching the characters! Perhaps the lack of subtlety won't bother kids, but it got old fast for me.
The nifty new package design for The Watcher in the Woods belies the fact that this is a stripped-down version of the earlier Anchor Bay release. Sans the commentary by director John Hough, the director bio, and the insert booklet, and featuring only the two alternate endings and two trailers as extras, it's actually a big step backward in terms of supplementary material. The fact that the cover makes it look like Bette Davis's character is the titular watcher may also cause some indignation among viewers when they realize they've been misled. The 5.1 audio mix and widescreen presentation have been preserved from the Anchor Bay release and acquit themselves well; for a full discussion of audiovisual quality, see my colleague Judge Patrick Naugle's review of the Anchor Bay release, linked at the head of this review. The other English audio tracks available in the previous release have also been dropped, but at least now viewers have the option of hearing the dialogue in French or Spanish.
The film seems to have a devoted following, but I'm sorry to say I won't be joining that following. At the same time, I think younger kids who relish the macabre but aren't ready for the scares of grownups' ghost stories may enjoy this. It has enough "boo!" moments and atmospheric creepiness to give young ones some pleasant shivers, yet it avoids becoming truly grim and ends on a note of affirmation, which should reduce the likelihood of bad dreams after the viewing. The nascent romance between Jan and an English guy is also kid-friendly, avoiding anything as oogy as kissing. Although the trailers insist in doom-laden voiceover that it's not a children's flick, it shouldn't be too terrifying for those eight and up. It's about the same degree of scary as Something Wicked This Way Comes; if your kids are up for that, they should be fine with The Watcher in the Woods. Frankly, I can't see that it has much to offer adults...oh, wait, there is a cute puppy. I liked the puppy. And the abandoned chapel was cool. But my spine-chiller craving demands something more along the lines of The Others or The Uninvited (1944).
Disney is given a stern warning from the bench for cutting back on the extras from the earlier edition, and Lynn-Holly Johnson is hereafter banned from this courtroom. Court is adjourned so the judge can go pop in her old VHS tape of The Innocents. The real crime here is that that's not available on DVD.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Two Alternate Endings
* Two Trailers