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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Watcher In The Woods
Despite his image as a jovial nostalgia merchant and the founder of the happiest place on Earth, Walt Disney was not afraid of the spooky and downright scary. The very first Silly Symphony, 1929’s The Skeleton Dance, was a celebration of the macabre. Virtually all of Walt’s earliest features had at least one sequence that was all but guaranteed to cause nightmares, from Snow White’s panicked run into the depths of the forest to the fate of Lampwick in Pinocchio to A Night On Bald Mountain in Fantasia. Granted, the live-action side tended to skew toward the kinder, gentler worlds of light adventure and broad comedy. But even these occasionally offered up monsters like the giant squid of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the banshee of Darby O’Gill And The Little People.
Despite this, the studio had never attempted to make an actual, bona fide horror movie. This makes total sense. The horror genre has always skewed older and grungier, attracting thrill-seeking teenagers and adults. For most of its existence, Disney had done just fine focusing on wholesome family entertainment. Why would they even want to get their hands dirty in a disreputable genre like horror?
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By the end of the 1970s, a few things had happened that would change all that. Ron Miller had risen through the ranks and was actively trying to modernize his father-in-law’s studio. An R rating probably wouldn’t fly but Miller was willing to consider a PG. (Bear in mind, this was prior to the creation of the PG-13 and PG-rated films pushed the envelope a lot further back then than they do today.) At this point, it’s fair to say that Miller was willing to consider anything he thought might become a hit.
Significantly, audiences had also rediscovered their love of being scared in a big way. Movies like The Exorcist, Jaws and The Omen had become blockbusters, raking in cash and elevating the genre in the eyes of critics. This was the state of things when Tom Leetch, an assistant director and producer on such films as Freaky Friday and Snowball Express, brought the YA novel A Watcher In The Woods by Florence Engel Randall to Miller’s attention, saying, “This could be our Exorcist.”
The fact that Miller was willing to even entertain the idea of making a Disney Exorcist says a lot about how far outside the box he was thinking at that time. But it arguably says even more about how shockingly popular William Friedkin’s film had been. I don’t think anyone really expected Disney to put their name on anything remotely close to the level of intensity on display in The Exorcist. But he was absolutely open to making a genuinely scary movie. At least, for a little while.
To begin with, Leetch and Miller found a screenwriter with real horror credentials to adapt the book. Brian Clemens started his career in British television on such popular series as The Avengers before moving to features. He’d written a number of genre films, including And Soon The Darkness and, for Hammer Films, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, which he’d also directed. Miller gave Clemens’ dark, spooky script to John Hough, a veteran of the Witch Mountain films who had worked with Clemens on The Avengers. Hough liked the screenplay and agreed to direct.
Unfortunately, Miller was already starting to get cold feet about making an honest-to-badness horror movie. He began to send Clemens’ script around to other writers for rewrites and Disney-fying. Harry Spalding had some horror experience, having written Witchcraft and Curse Of The Fly, although his previous Disney film, the James Garner vehicle One Little Indian, was only horrifying for different, unintentional reasons. Rosemary Anne Sisson was known for genteel period films like Ride A Wild Pony and The Littlest Horse Thieves. Her last Disney movie, Candleshoe with Jodie Foster, at least nodded toward the mystery/caper movie genres. Still, she was far from being considered a Master of Horror.
The top-billed star was Bette Davis, reuniting with Disney and Hough after Return From Witch Mountain. Casting Ms. Davis ended up being a double-edged sword. Bette Davis arrived in Hollywood in 1930 with her first film, Bad Sister, hitting screens in March of 1931. When the Disney publicity department discovered she’d be celebrating her 50th anniversary in show business on their set, they decided to make that a focal point of their campaign, whether the movie was ready to go or not.
Most of the rest of the cast was new to Disney. Carroll Baker probably had the most extensive horror resume. She’d become a star in Elia Kazan’s steamy 1956 feature Baby Doll, netting an Oscar nomination in the process. When her Hollywood career faltered after a litigious contract dispute with the powerful producer Joseph E. Levine, she moved to Europe where she starred in a number of giallo films, many for director Umberto Lenzi, with titles like Orgasmo and So Sweet…So Perverse. In 1977, she returned to America with a starring role in Andy Warhol’s Bad. There may have been unlikelier paths to the Magic Kingdom but not many.
Her husband would be played by David McCallum, best known as Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin on TV’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Lynn-Holly Johnson, a former professional figure skater who had transitioned to acting with the 1977 melodrama Ice Castles, landed her second movie gig as eldest daughter, Jan. She’d next appear as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only, although most audiences ended up seeing that one first thanks to The Watcher In The Woods’ erratic release.
There was one other cast member with both Disney and horror experience. Kyle Richards made her feature film debut in Escape To Witch Mountain, playing the younger version of her sister Kim’s character, Tia, in flashbacks. A few years later, she appeared in The Wonderful World Of Disney TV-movie The Million Dollar Dixie Deliverance. Eight months after that show aired, she was back on the big screen as one of Jamie Lee Curtis’ young charges in John Carpenter’s Halloween, a role she’d eventually reprise in David Gordon Green’s latter-day sequels. Like her sister, she’d also become known as one of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills. I am not especially well-versed in Real Housewives lore, so I have no idea how many of those ladies have Disney connections but that’s at least two so far.
The version of The Watcher In The Woods most people are familiar with opens with the arrival of the Curtis family at the Aylwood estate in the English countryside. Mother Helen (Baker) is a writer and dad Paul (McCallum) is a composer and visiting conductor mounting a production in London. The sprawling main house is available for rent at a surprisingly reasonable price. Their realtor (Eleanor Summerfield) explains that the owner, Mrs. Aylwood (Davis), lives in the adjoining guest house and is extremely particular over who she rents to. Mrs. Aylwood doesn’t seem all that impressed by the Curtises but she gets a feeling off of Jan and agrees to let them stay.
Jan also gets a feeling and begs her family to keep house hunting. But everyone else loves the place and they waste no time moving in. It isn’t long before Jan starts experiencing unsettling phenomena. She casts no reflection in a mirror but sees a vision of a blindfolded blonde girl about her age in it moments before the mirror shatters. She and her little sister, Ellie, adopt a puppy from Mike, a handsome neighbor boy (Benedict Taylor). Ellie goes into a trance and writes the name “Karen” backwards on a dirty window. When asked, Ellie tells her that it’s the new dog’s name, Nerak.
Back at home, Ellie continues to experience trancelike fugues. In one of them, she follows Nerak deep into the woods. Jan pursues her and they find an abandoned chapel and a peaceful-looking pond. But Jan spots a mysterious glowing circle in the pond and accidentally falls in. Mrs. Aylwood arrives and appears to try to drown Jan with her cane. But it turns out that she was trying to rescue her by freeing her from the branch she was caught up in.
While Jan recovers, Mrs. Aylwood explains that she had a daughter named Karen who disappeared in those woods when Karen was about Jan’s age. She’d joined some friends to be initiated into a secret society (hence the blindfold Jan saw in her vision). But the bell tower was struck by lightning, engulfing the chapel in flames and sending the kids running for their lives. Most people believe Karen was killed but Mrs. Aylwood holds to the hope that she’s still out there, somewhere.
As Ellie continues to hear voices and Jan has more visions, she pieces together the long-ago events from the now-grown witnesses. One of them is Mike’s mother, Mary (Frances Cuka). Mary is still deeply disturbed by Karen’s disappearance and wants no part in dredging up the past. The leader of the group was John Keller (Ian Bannen), now one of the wealthiest men in the village, and he’s equally tight-lipped on the subject. The only one willing to talk is Tom Colley (Richard Pasco), a recluse who still lives in the woods caring for sick and injured animals. Colley saw Karen disappear before the church bell hit the ground but has no idea what could have happened to her.
Jan ultimately decides that the only way to bring Karen back is to recreate the ceremony during an upcoming solar eclipse. She persuades Keller to participate while Mike goes to collect Colley and his mother. The group gathers in the ruins of the chapel with Jan taking Karen’s place in the center of the circle. Ellie, it turns out, has been possessed by an alien entity known as The Watcher. During the ceremony, The Watcher leaves Ellie and fills Jan, attempting to spirit her to its own dimension. But Mike prevents her from disappearing completely, just as Karen, still a young woman, reappears.
Or something like that. The end of The Watcher In The Woods is notoriously vague and unsatisfying and always has been. This is where Bette Davis’ 50th anniversary begins to cause trouble. To make that artificial deadline, the studio premiered the film at New York’s Ziegfeld Theatre on April 17, 1980. This version was not the one that went into general release over a year later. In this one, The Watcher manifests itself as a sort of crystalline spider-like creature. It takes Jan and disappears, only for the girl to reappear moments later with Karen. As Karen reunites with her mother, Ellie more or less explains what just happened to her sister.
Audiences were just as baffled by this ending as they would be by the later revision. The studio hadn’t bothered to show where Jan went, a significant portion known as the “Other World” Sequence, on the grounds that the effects were unfinished and it didn’t seem necessary. Miller quickly realized he’d made the wrong call. As audiences consistently responded to The Watcher In The Woods with a confused, “What just happened?”, Miller decided to withdraw the film from its New York release after just ten days.
Unfortunately, John Hough had already moved on to his next project and was unavailable to come back for reshoots. Miller saw this as an opportunity to make some additional changes. He got Disney hired gun Vincent McEveety to oversee the filming of additional footage. He also decided to tone down Hough’s vision for the film, removing references to the ceremony as a “séance” and eliminating the original opening sequence, an intense prologue that finds The Watcher stalking a little girl in the woods and culminating in a closeup of a burning doll’s head. It sets a very different tone from the outset. In all, about 20 minutes ended up on the cutting room floor. All of this deleted footage is now available as a bonus on the Blu-ray available from the Disney Movie Club.
I’ve given Ron Miller a lot of credit for his efforts to revitalize Disney but The Watcher In The Woods is a prime example of his limitations. Miller had a clear vision of where he wanted the studio to be. He did not necessarily have the storytelling acumen to get it there. None of his interference made The Watcher In The Woods a better movie. He should have simply hired Hough to film Clemens’ script like he wanted to in the first place and backed off. Instead, he inserted himself into the process every step of the way, second-guessing his own decisions and watering down what could have been a crackerjack little horror movie.
It's to Hough’s credit that the end result is still an entertaining watch, despite its narrative flaws. Bette Davis seemed to have a good time in Return From Witch Mountain but it was still kind of like serving champagne with a Happy Meal. The Watcher In The Woods gives her a little bit more to sink her teeth into. Baker and especially McCallum disappear from the story for long stretches but Baker has some nice moments, especially in the deleted original ending opposite Davis. And Kyle Richards brings an off-kilter intensity to her role as Ellie.
As for Lynn-Holly Johnson, she may be toward the top of the extremely short list of figure skaters turned actors but no one was ever going to mistake her for Meryl Streep. Still, her all-American, girl-next-door vibe makes her ideally suited to this genre. If Disney hadn’t gotten ahold of her, I could have seen her following in Carroll Baker’s footsteps in Italian horror. Her range may be limited but Hough knows how to utilize her.
After Miller got through making his changes, The Watcher In The Woods was finally released to the general public on October 9, 1981, just in time for Halloween. Critics were decidedly mixed and even those who found things to like about the picture agreed that it fell apart in the end. More importantly, the film failed to find an audience. It was too scary for Disney fans and too Disney for horror fans. Another swing and a miss for Miller’s New Disney.
Today, The Watcher In The Woods has a small cult following. One of its fans was Melissa Joan Hart, the teen star of Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina The Teenage Witch. She doggedly pursued the idea of a remake even after she’d aged out of playing the role of Jan herself. She eventually secured the rights to Randall’s book and directed a 2017 TV remake that aired on Lifetime with Anjelica Huston as Mrs. Aylwood. Benedict Taylor, the original’s Mike, returned to play John Keller.
Disney has always been touchy about The Watcher In The Woods. In the early days of DVD, the studio licensed quite a few of their live-action titles to Anchor Bay Entertainment. The Bay hoped to finally restore the original 1980 version of the film or possibly even allow Hough to assemble a director’s cut. Disney brought the hammer down on that idea, although they did allow the inclusion of the alternate endings as bonus features (the deleted opening sequence remained in the vault until Disney’s own Blu-ray). As of this writing, the film remains unavailable to stream on Disney+. It’s a shame because, despite its imperfections, The Watcher In The Woods is a fun, intriguing movie worth watching.
VERDICT: Disney Plus
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