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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

The Watcher
in the Woods
Special Edition


The Watcher in the Woods
Anchor Bay
1980 / Color / 1:37 / 84 min. / Special Edition
Starring Bette Davis, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards, Carroll Baker, Richard Pasco, Ian Bannen, Georgina Hale, Diane Lane
Cinematography Alan Hume
Production Designer Elliot Scott
Special Effects John Richardson, Harrison Ellenshaw
Film Editor Geoffrey Foot
Original Music Helena Fulmer, Stanley Myers
Written by Brian Clemens, Rosemary Anne Sisson and Harry Spalding from the novel by Florence Engel Randall
Produced by Alyssa Cartegena, Tom Leetch and Ron Miller
Directed by John Hough

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A misconceived Disney horror film made at a time when the studio was at its lowest ebb, The Watcher in the Woods is mostly a stack of problems - casting, story conception, special effects. It has the ring of studio interference, cowardice, and indecisiveness. The original tale is no winner, and the smart casting of Bette Davis and some good photography can't do enough to make things right. After a well-publicized disastrous preview, the ending was reworked at the last minute, and the scenes that were jettisoned have since become legendary. Now, thanks to Anchor Bay, we can finally see not just two but all three endings that were cobbled together in an effort to save the picture.

Synopsis:

The Curtis family rents a secluded country house from elderly Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), who only agrees after perceiving the 'sensitivity' of older daugher Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson). Both she and her sister Ellie (Kyle Richards) are immediately bombarded with supernatural phenomena - reflections of a blindfolded girl in a mirror, glass that breaks in a triangular pattern, blue light that forms into circles - that Jan investigates, much to the consternation of her mother Helen (Carroll Baker). The mystery is directly connected to the disappearance thirty years before of Mrs. Aylwood's daughter Karen, under suspicious circumstances witnessed by neighbors Mary Fleming (Frances Cuka), Tom Colley (Richard Pasco) and John Keller (Ian Bannen): something is in the woods, something fearsome, and it's not Karen's ghost.

Sometimes, the lost, 'mystery versions' of movies are far more interesting than the shows themselves. We're the happy recipients of all kinds of hidden, alternate, foreign, and 'continental' versions of films on DVD, and in many cases the restored cuts have been revelations.  1 The Watcher in the Woods is a special case. It premiered and was booked for four big weeks at the Ziegfeld theater in New York, something no Disney film had done in quite a while ... and fell flat on its face. The word that audiences had laughed it off the screen at an earlier preview, resulted in reshoots and re-edits to 'fix' the ending. Unfortunately, the whole show was the problem, as it built such a banal 'mystery', that any ending was going to seem a letdown.

The Watcher in the Woods is kind of a Nancy Drew spooky thriller that approaches its subject in a conventional way, with uninteresting characters doing wholly predictable things. The show seems to have been created by filling in a stock ghost story plot with minimal characterizations and logic.There really isn't much of a mystery, because as each phantom vision occurs, we're told exactly what it is in the most literal way. The young heroine's 'sensitivity' to the supernatural phenomena is painfully arbitrary, and her poorly motivated task of righting an interdimensional accident, rounding up the people who witnessed the disappearance of Karen Aylwood 30 years ago, is as easy as taking a bike ride. The solution is as simple and dull as the problem itself, and all of it is resolved almost solely by the intuitions of the mostly clueless heroine.

This Disney production starts with a story that can only be interesting if it gets dangerous, something we know the Mouse wasn't up to in 1979, even if they did put a disclaimer on the trailers. The Disney studio, post-Walt, practically invented the concept of burying good stories with committee changes, and The Watcher in the Woods has all the post-mortem evidence of tampering. The only surviving thrills come from situations where children are threatened. This it does fairly well, but as we know darn well nothing really bad will happen to the oh-so-cute juvenile leads, the show just marks time until its finale.

Second, there are always parents around to gum things up. As this is a mystery that only young Jan and Ellie Curtis seem to understand, we could see it developing nicely if the kids were somehow isolated or left to their own devices, as in the chilling, powerful Whistle Down the Wind. Instead, they're given parents with nothing do do except reassure everyone that the girls have a supportive family. Too much screen time is taken by nonbelieving (but loving!) parental responses. To participate in the adventure, we have to be immersed in the fantasy, and since the two girls are never far away from Carroll Baker and David McCallum's oversight, that just can't happen. Heck, even In Search of the Castaways and The Moonspinners arranged to have no parental authority around to gum things up.

Thirdly, the Burbank Nabobs stuffed the show with lots of G-rated padding it doesn't need. There's a safe'n sane cute boyfriend, with a baby face and no personality. He races dirt bikes, allowing us to waste time in an irrelevant 'healthy activity' scene. There's also a horseriding section, giving us more distracting wholesome content. Jan never seems focused on the mystery of the Thing in the Woods. With no morbid angle to anything, and only some tame (but well-done) haunted house effects here and there, the show never develops much of a spooky charge.

Finally, there's no real menace whatsoever, stemming from a story that keeps its only interesting character, The Watcher, an unexplored mystery. The fluid steadicam shots from the greenery that represent its POV, come off as benign. Whenever something does happen, it's interpreted for us. Either Jan immediately intuits the skinny (it's not Karen, it's something else! ... it didn't want to hurt me!) or she somehow knows exactly how to react. The Watcher rescues Jan from some situations (an out-of-control motorbike), and then inconsistently menaces her in others ( the near-drowning). It's poor drama, with sheltered teen Lynn-Holly Johnson humbling a hard-bitten Ian Bannen with a hackneyed catchphrase. The 'mystery' events of the past are summed up and recapped at least five times. Poor Bette Davis is on screen so little, she makes hardly a ripple, and her on-the-money playing is applied to a part far, far beneath her talents.

None of this works, simply because Disney is trifling in a genre dominated by extreme content, and by memories of The Exorcist. The horror build-ups logically lead to climaxes that just aren't going to happen in a family-oriented production. In this case, the Disney machine is so out of its element, that the picture is about precisely nothing.  2

It's wrong to fault any of the actors in this show, even the colorless Lynn-Holly Johnson, who comes off every bit as foolishly as she did in the next year's Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. Her hair is styled 'just so' and her wardrobe is suited more to a Pennys catalog than to any kid you might be expected to run into, anywhere. She's been shoehorned into the Disney ingenue role that Haley Mills and Janet Munro suffered through a decade before - only their personalities had a mischievous sexual component that no amount of directing could contain. Johnson has only her medal-winning smile, that says, "Please like me, huh?"

You don't have to be a great talent like Bette Davis to be totally wasted. As stated before, Baker and McCallum have no reason even to be around. The people who do have a reason to be in the movie (Bannen, Pasco and Cuka) do fine, thankless work, Bannen in particular lending credence to the silly windstorms and glowing apparitions of the last scene.


Anchor Bay's DVD of The Watcher in the Woods is laudable for its thoroughness. Its confused birth was a cinematic mystery, and all the puzzle pieces are presented here for us to pick over. Director John Hough provides a commentary that repeatedly claims that the film works fine, right up to the ending, which he had nothing to do with - the IMDB suggests that the Disney journeyman Vincent McEveety directed the reshoots. Savant saw several moments in the woods, particularly one with mottled light filtering down through the trees, that did indeed conjure up a nice mood. But that, and the isolated pleasure of watching Bette Davis do her stuff, is about it.

Seeing the two alternate endings (making three in all) is worth the price of the disc. They're an education in film doctoring 101. Savant's seen lots of films that have been completely worked over in post through reshoots (The Whip Hand, The Night They Raided Minsky's), or have had their endings blunted by tampering (Fritz Lang's Fury and Cloak and Dagger), but The Watcher in the Woods takes the cake.

(spoilers dominate from here on.)

The movie slowly paints itself into a corner, by showing supernatural phenomena that might be explained by a science-fiction premise. But nothing adds up, and by the last act, we're wondering what amazing revelation is going to occur to make all the silliness we've seen before, come together. Good storytellers do this all the time - but not here. In the release version, there's some wind and noise and hocus-pocus, and yet more bad exposition, with the 'Watcher' explaining its motivations through a possessed Ellie. It's more terrible than it sounds. Then, kazoom, Karen is returned. Bette Davis arrives on the scene (in a suspicious cutaway, followed by some action with a double) and the show is over. We never know what exactly the forces are, what The Watcher is, or what this alternate dimension is supposed to mean. Of course, it's very unsatisfying to all but eight-year old girls, who can be expected to fully identify with Lynn Holly-Johnson's character. Surely the other versions are better.

Yes and no. The shorter alternate cut solves some problems (something happens) and introduces others (what happens is awful). Instead of possessing Ellie, The Watcher takes physical form as a chrome-plated, exoskeletoned creature halfway between Alien and a bat monster from Lifeforce. A pitiful marionette, it cruises forward, envelops Jan, and they disappear together in a blast of orange light. Just terrible, especially when coming from the studio that shut down 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and courageously rebuilt a new Squid monster when their original didn't convince. Now Carrol Baker enters, and has a solid moment thrashing around, getting no response from the defeated trio when she demands to know where her daughter has gone. This is good - at least Baker doesn't disappear from the film as she does in the final cut. Then, another blast of light, and Karen and Jan reappear, just as in the final show. But this alternate has a much better final scene, with Karen reunited with her mother back at the house.

The third, longer alternate cut expands on the second, with an entire other-world sequence that has to be seen to be believed. The obvious result of the post - Star Wars perception that big special effects are an Entertainment Essential, it is just plain bad. How bad? Remember the going-to-Hell ending of The Black Hole? Worse. The marionette creature flies Jan Superman-style to a terrible set representing a landscape in the other dimension. There she finds Karen entombed in a crystal with triangular facets. The animation, design, and puppetry looks as though the crew tossed it together knowing someone would have to come up with a better fix later.

This last ending was apparently the version that the preview audience found so ridiculous. Watching all three, an editor can tell that the decision of what to take out and what to keep in was in terrible hands. Impatient non-editors watch something that doesn't work more than a couple times in a hostile committee room, and they're soon throwing out the good with the bad.

In a way, there never was a solution. Savant's partial fix would be to eliminate all but a faint final glimpse of The Watcher monster, possibly substituting a more fluid creature - perhaps even the excellent animated banshee-type visions from Darby O'Gill and the Little People. The best footage of Baker and Bette needed to be retained: when Disney dropped those emotional moments, they really shot themselves in the foot.

Jan gets to see the Other World, we assume, because she goes somewhere, grabs Karen, and comes back. So it can't be completely ignored, as it is in the final release version. If the other world is to be special, it's going to be beyond simple picturization (like the inside of CE3K's Mothership). All that's needed is a compelling verbal account, a 'Back in Kansas' moment where a disoriented Jan does her best to remember the voyage in feelings instead of literalizations. Here's where the central mystery of the film, The Watcher, can be illuminated. Like Karen, The Watcher is also a lost soul being returned to its home, so Jan could say something about feeling sure that he was happy, or grateful - anything to bring the point of the story full circle: other-dimensional phantoms are Just Folks, Too. It might have made for a bright moment for Lynn-Holly Johnson to express a sense of wonder, hug somebody (anybody but the icky boyfriend) and end things on a high note of inter-dimensional understanding. Nothing could make The Watcher in the Woods a great picture, but it should have been an easy to save it from embarassment.

The rest of the Special Edition package rounds out the package: Some interchangeable trailers that don't work because they juxtapose the word Disney with a promise of Adult menace; a bio for John Hough, and a 20 page insert with pleasant reminiscences of the cast and crew that has its heart in the right place.

The wrong movie from the wrong studio at the wrong time, The Watcher in the Woods is one of Disney's bigger disappointments. Even sadder is 1983's Something Wicked This Way Comes, which apparently underwent an even more extensive overhaul. Is there somewhere an original version or alternate scenes, waiting (in the woods?) to be unearthed?. Kudos to Anchor Bay for this faithful piece of DVD archeology.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Watcher in the Woods, Special Edition rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, two alternate endings, John Hough bio, trailers, TV spot.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 5, 2002


Footnote:

1. I've just learned a while ago (3/1/02) that what might be the best supernatural movie of all time, Curse/Night of the Demon is being prepped for DVD over at Columbia. Heaven hope that this rumor pans out - with the longer English cut, or better yet, both, ending up on the disc.
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2. Perhaps the big committee flub was to attempt a horror film at all, when the studio in the late '70s could barely handle sequels to The Love Bug. Disney's early feature work always had horror content far superior to the live-action show of the time, and later studio work includes titles like Darby O'Gill and the Little People and The Three Lives of Thomasina, lighter stories with very compelling horror content. After The Exorcist, Disney was as confused as everyone else as to what a horror film should be. Robert Wise's Audrey Rose pretty much proved that watching children suffer for two hours also is not satisfactory, when you have no coherent point to make.
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