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From the Vaults: 'The Watcher in the Woods' (1980)

August 2, 2010 |  2:35 am

Watcherposter Well, "Watcher in the Woods"  is certainly an odd film. Starring Bette Davis and the radiant, fresh-off-of-"Ice Castles" Lynn-Holly Johnson, it hails from an era of vaguely dark and weird Disney films: "The Black Hole" had come out the previous year, and a couple years later they'd release a little something called "Tron." There's also "Something Wicked This Way Comes" (1983) and "Escape to Witch Mountain" (1975) -- it's probably too much to call these movies edgy, exactly, but they're a far cry from "The Santa Clause" and "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

I guess the idea was to appeal to adolescents; the tone of these older movies tends to veer toward the dark and creepy without having there really be a lot of actual nastiness. "Watcher" certainly sets up with the evil fairy-tale tropes, but Bette Davis turns out to be a nice old mom instead of a witch, and the monster in the woods (spoiler) is just a benign force that's lost its way. Whew! We will sleep well tonight.

Lynn-Holly (I do love a girl with two first names) arrives with her parents and little sister at the big country house they're renting in Britain. Creepy old Mrs. Aylworth (Davis), the landlady, rents them the place because Lynn-Holly's Jan reminds her of her own daughter, who disappeared 30 years ago. "Are you kind?" Mrs. A. demands of Jan. "Are you sensitive? Do you... sense things?"

Jan does, in fact. As soon as she walks in the house, she's seeing things and moaning, "Something awful happened here. I can feel it. Something awful." She has visions of a blindfolded girl, and of triangles and circles and flashes of unexplained light in the woods. This movie gets tons of mileage out of Jan sensing things. Meanwhile, little sister Ellie is hearing things: whispers, disembodied voices singing songs. What's going on?

WatcherThere is, in fact, a real-world mystery to go with all the supernatural hijinks. Three adults in the area  witnessed the disappearance of Mrs. Aylworth's daughter, and soon Jan is tracking them down and trying to get them to tell her what they know. Combining their stories with her own supernatural clues, she's able to piece together what happened -- and she might even have a way to bring Karen back.

It's actually a decent story. I like the combination of mystery, fairy tale and ghost story quite a bit. Jan is sort of a Mary Sue -- what teenage girl doesn't want to stumble into a gloomy mystery and become the heroine who solves it? -- but that's OK.

And the atmosphere works. When the spooky woods get old, the action shifts inside the spooky house, and when that gets old, the film busts out a spooky ruined church for the climax. Nicely done! I love haunted house movies and I love horror films set in the woods, and both settings work well with the suggested subtext of home, adulthood and family: you may leave your parents and get swept off into the dark tangle of adolescence, but a part of you never really leaves.

The film's beautifully directed by John Hough, who did the "Witch Mountain" movies as well as "Legend of Hell House," which I adore. (One of the houses in this film is also featured in Robert Wise's "The Haunting" -- which in turn based on the book that inspired Richard Matheson to write "Hell House" -- so "Watcher" has a good if inbred horror pedigree.)

What doesn't work: I almost think this movie had too much money. The dirt-bike sequence is entirely unnecessary, as is the runaway-horse scene. And it's fab that they hired Bette Davis, but did they really need to? She looks great but doesn't have all that much to do, acting-wise. It would've been fun to give this script to some scrappy up-and-coming filmmakers who didn't have to answer to a giant studio, and see what they came up with. But it's what we've got, and the expensive intrusions are campy fun, as is Lynn-Holly's earnest performance (she gets lines like "Quickly! and she gives them her all").

Dating myself: This was the first scary movie I ever saw, and I must have seen it a half-dozen times at least as a kid. Every time there was a slumber party or any kind of party with movies, we either watched "Annie" or this. So maybe this movie is why I like movies set in the woods so much -- Anyway, it was fascinating and unsettling to return to it after all these years; I thought it held up pretty well, although I remember being terrified by it and I have since graduated to scarier things.

The alternate endings are interesting too. (It's weird to watch an alternate ending to a movie you memorized at age 8 and haven't seen since! It's like hearing someone else recite a dream you had.) Both versions make the "watcher" into a more, ah, specific otherworldly presence. Apparently the film was released with one of these endings, then pulled and revised with the ending I grew up with -- in which the "watcher" is just a beam of light. It's pretty nifty to see this big crazy creature come floating into the movie; it kicks things into real crazypants territory. All the characters stare at it like "we knew something bizarre was out in the woods, but WHOA." I actually thought it worked! But I'm weird.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon