Paul and Helen Curtis moves into a manor located in rural England, together with their two daughters Jan and Ellie. The manor is owned by an elderly woman named Mrs. Aylwood, and she lives in the guest house next door. Mrs. Aylwood once had a daughter, Karen, but she disappeared in an abandoned chapel in the woods thirty years ago. Upon seeing a photo of Karen, Jan notices that she actually looks a lot like this girl. And she also starts sensing something strange about the place, witnessing strange lights in the woods, glowing objects, and visions of a blindfolded girl in the mirror. When getting to know some of the townspeople, Jan wants to find out more about Karen’s mysterious disappearance in the woods all those years ago, and finds that she was together with a bunch of friends that night. What they were up to and what happened to Karen is something only they would know, but none of them are willing to talk about it.
The Watcher in the Woods is a supernatural film from 1980, directed by John Hough and Vincent McEveety, and Produced by Walt Disney Productions, being one of several live-action films from a time when the studio focused on targeting young adult audiences. It is based on a novel from 1976 by Florence Engel Randall, and it was filmed at Pinewood Studios and the surrounding areas in Buckinghamshire, England. The building that’s being used in the film is called Ettington Park Manor, and it was also used in The Haunting (1963).
Upon its release, the film had to be pulled from the theaters pretty fast as the response was overwhelmingly negative, both from critics and audiences, and many considered it “too dark”. Thus, the studio made the decision to make changes to the movie, with extensive reshoots and a brand new ending, and re-released it eighteen months later in 1981. Despite the critical response being so harsh, the film still ended up gaining a cult following over the years.
Now, this movie is certainly not one to watch if you want something scary. It’s from a time when Disney started dipping their toes into PG-rated films, with…well…rather mixed results. Something Wicked This Way Comes is probably one of their best and most memorable efforts among these. While The Watcher in the Woods is more aimed at a young audience, it still does have a certain appeal with a gothic teenage mystery vibe to it, and it is of course heightened by the performance of Bette Davis, who plays Mrs. Aylwood. There are some spooky goings-on, with some charming old-school supernatural effects, and I can easily imagine that seeing this as a kid during the 80’s would make a certain impact. Then again, the director John Hough previously directed the 1973 horror film The Legend of Hell House, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is at least some spookiness here.
So I’d say that overall, The Watcher in the Woods works as a family suspense thriller, layered with a certain old-school charm.
Director: John Hough
Writers: Brian Clemens, Harry Spalding, Rosemary Anne Sisson
Country & year: UK, US, 1980
Actors: Bette Davis, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards, Carroll Baker, David McCallum, Benedict Taylor, Frances Cuka, Richard Pasco, Ian Bannen, Katharine Levy, Eleanor Summerfield, Georgina Hale