In 1980, Disney made a move to try and attract a more adult audience to the cinema. With elements of mystery and horror, they adapted Florence Engel Randall’s 1976 novel and released The Watcher in the Woods. However, the road would be a bumpy one with no less than two openings and three different endings due to concerns over how the Disney family would react.
Helen and Paul Curtis (Carroll Baker and David McCallum) rent a mansion in the English countryside. Their two daughters Jan (Lynn Holly-Johnson, For Your Eyes Only) and Ellie (Kyle Richards, The Car) soon become embroiled in a mystery. Their neighbor, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis, Burnt Offerings), isn’t as strange as they initially think. She lost her daughter Karen at a very young age and her body was never found. As Ellie begins to go into trances and Jan begins seeing blue lights and images of Karen, they begin to think Karen is still alive. Did a mysterious ceremony open a doorway into another dimension? And what does the solar eclipse have to do with it? And why does Paul leave and never return, even for a final reunion scene?
Director John Hough (The Legend of Hell House) and screenwriter Brian Clemons (TVs The Avengers) crafted a tale that pushed the limits on what Disney was willing to do at that time. They wanted something more adult but didn’t want to alienate their family audience. Other screenwriters would be called in to tone the film down per Disney executive Ron Miller. The original idea was to go with a more occult theme and we were to actually see the “watcher”, which was to be a large insect-like creature. We were also supposed to go to the other realm. However, the effects were rushed and the decision was made to re-shoot the ending. The original theatrical ending in 1980 still had the creature but we never make it to the other world. It lacked any true explanation of the events and movie audiences were confused. So, more re-shoots were ordered without the participation of director John Hough. With the re-release in 1981, the “watcher” is merely explained and not seen, helping tone down the intensity. A revised opening sequence was also filmed to avoid seeing a little girl terrorized.
It’s no surprise that The Watcher in the Woods was not a box office smash and is a movie that Disney has largely tried to forget. Once it was initially released on VHS in the 80s, it wouldn’t see a home release again until Anchor Bay released it in 2002. Despite efforts to release the original version of the film, the alternate endings were only included as extras; however, the original opening sequence was still absent. Disney released their own version in 2004 once the Anchor Bay version went out-of-print. It had less extras but the endings were still included, just not incorporated back into the movie.
For years, I thought I had seen this movie but, upon a Saturday night viewing, I discovered it was indeed entirely new to me. I thoroughly enjoyed it with only one minor exception. Lynn Holly Johnson is entertaining but only in small doses. Her acting can be a little grating at times. It would have been interesting to see what Diane Lane (the original choice) would have done with the role. Despite that, I highly recommend The Watcher in the Woods if, for no other reason, to see what Disney was doing in those dark days known as the 80s. Check out the trailer on YouTube or add the DVD to your collection. And yes, if the mansion looks familiar you are right. It was also used in The Haunting (1963).
UPDATE! Be sure to listen to episode 139 of the Disney, Indiana podcast for a discussion on The Watcher in the Woods. Scott and Tracey are well-known amongst the podcast community and their show is top-notch! Well worth a listen!