This muddled history may seem like déjá vu to those familiar with the film's troubles. The Watcher In The Woods collected dust on the shelf at Walt Disney for nearly a year following a poorly received press screening in April 1980, intended to celebrate Bette Davis' fiftieth year in entertainment. Twenty minutes were trimmed from that version, and as the film's opening and conclusion were gutted, a newly filmed climax was lensed at great expense to take its place. Only those lucky enough to catch that early screening or stumble upon bootleg cassettes at conventions were able to catch a peek of the Watcher's original form. Even some key members of the cast hadn't seen how the create originally appeared.
Adapted from Florence E. Randall's currently out-of-print novel, The Watcher In The Woods stars Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan Curtis, whose artistically-inclined family has recently rented an isolated...err...secluded stately manor from the irrepressibly eccentric Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). Aylwood's daughter Karen mysteriously disappeared thirty years earlier, and the handful of kids who were present remain tightlipped about the events of that fateful night. Jan begins seeing circular bursts of light and images of a blindfolded girl crying out for help, and her sister Ellie (Kyle Richards, who you may remember as Lindsey Wallace in the original Halloween) continually hears whispers from some unseen presence. Jan, convinced that Karen is reaching out from another realm for her help, sets out to discover what really happened, along with the teenaged son of one of the women who may have been responsible. As Jan unearths the truth, she's also left wondering if the Watcher in the Woods is the restless spirit of Karen or another entity entirely...
The Watcher In The Woods was the first horror movie for far too many people my age. Though the thrills are strictly PG-rated, this rare live-action horror outing from Disney (which now, presumably, would've been tossed off to Touchstone or one of the Mouse House's innumerable other labels) holds up surprisingly well after twenty years. No, it's not a terrifying film, and I rather doubt too many viewers will feel compelled to rummage through their attics in search of a nightlight afterwards. The Watcher In The Woods is not without its flaws, but I found the afterschool special acting from some of the younger cast members, inconsistent actions on the part of the Watcher, and the continual retelling of certain key events to be easily overlooked by getting myself in the proper mindset. I'm not sure I'd enjoy the film in quite the same way of those imperfections were ironed out. Though some of my childhood favorites make me wince when I give them a spin nowadays -- I shudder to think that I ever went through a Troma phase, for instance -- I found The Watcher In The Woods to be just as enjoyable now as I did countless years earlier. Though the film itself may not be considered to amount to much more than a mildly guilty pleasure, its treatment on this very reasonably priced DVD is top-notch, and the inclusion of two alternate endings along with a smattering of other supplements is sure to propel this disc to the top of must-have lists for many of the now-twenty-somethings that grew up with The Watcher In The Woods.
Video: Presented for the first time in widescreen on home video, this DVD release of The Watcher In The Woods is at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. A cursory search for reviews of the Laserdisc turned up comments that were none too positive, with one comparing its battered appearance to a "used videocasette". Based on that description, the DVD should be a revelation to those upgrading from older VHS and Laserdisc releases, offering a vast improvement in every respect. Though the palette isn't bursting with vibrancy, colors appear to be spot on, matching up well to the promotional stills on the box art and accompanying booklet. Laugh if you'd like, but yes, I paused the movie at one point and put the booklet next to the screen to compare the shade of Carroll Baker's shirt. The image is as crisp and detailed as I could possibly realistically expect. There's no noticeable damage present in the source material, and the presence of dust and specks is kept to such a bare minimum that it doesn't warrant even a mention in passing. The natural presence of very light film grain isn't intrusive or marred by poor compression, though occasional brief shots, particularly certain ominous glimpses of the woods, are noticeably grainer than others. The Watcher In The Woods looks really great, and this can be chalked up as yet another entry in the 'win' column for Anchor Bay.
Audio: The Watcher In The Woods includes mixes of the film's soundtrack in both Dolby Digital Surround EX and 6.1 DTS-ES. I'm hopelessly stuck in the Dark Ages with a mere Dolby Digital 5.1 system, obviously limiting what I can comment on. Even with my limited setup, the quality of the presentation is apparent. The mix is derived from the separate stems from the 70mm six-track mix used in early preview screenings. Dialogue sometimes sounds ever-so-slightly harsh, but nothing inappropriate considering its age. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot going on at the more extreme ends of the spectrum. Bass response is passable, though even the partial collapse of a rickety building doesn't inspire the sort of booming thuds I would expect. (Coincidentally, yesterday, I voiced a complaint about another Anchor Bay release, The Church, where something very much along those lines also occurs in a house o' worship, with similarly lackluster reinforcement from the LFE.) The jump scares and more action-oriented sequences feature some rather spiffy surround usage, particularly during the final moments of flashbacks to Karen and her friends at the old church. Anchor Bay has breathed quite a bit of new life into the film with this pair of remixes, though the limitations of the film's productions and the condition of the remaining material is infrequently noticeable. The Watcher In The Woods was theatrically released in Dolby stereo surround, and, appropriately, a 2.0 surround track is available here as well. Though no subtitles are presented, English closed captioning has been provided as an option.
Supplements: Director John Hough (who'd previously helmed the first two entries in Disney's Witch Mountain series) contributes a commentary track that may have been a bit more enjoyable if the cast and crew members interviewed in the disc's booklet had participated. There are some great tidbits of information tossed out, such as the similarities between this film and Hough's The Legend of Hell House, the results of makeup tests to roll back Bette Davis' clock a good thirty years, and the reuse of locations from The Haunting, though there are quite a number of lengthy pauses and the occasional rehashing of what's happening on-screen (even in the opening credits!). It's worth investing the time to listen to, particularly considering the surprising lack of detailed information online about the film, but it may be better suited to background noise while viewers do the dishes or whatever.
The most notable extras, and certainly those that will factor most heavily into the purchasing decisions of many, are the pair of alternate endings that give the Watcher a more corporeal form. One runs six minutes in length while an extended version tips the scales at fourteen minutes, and each includes optional commentary from Hough. These aren't collections of rough bits of discarded footage, as evidenced by the presence of ending credits in both versions. The overall quality's remarkable, just a notch under that of the film itself and presented in anamorphic widescreen. I will probably be condemning myself to a barrage of hate mail for saying this, but I actually prefer the theatrical ending. The mantis-by-way-of-Giger Watcher is a little too over the top, and the journey into the corny alternate dimension is a total disappointment. Though the booklet packaged with this disc makes mention of footage similarly excised from the beginning of the film, these two endings comprise all of the deleted footage available here.
Rounding out the supplements on the DVD itself are a TV spot, a few trailers, and a John Hough bio. As mentioned a few times earlier, a twenty-page booklet is also included, featuring interviews and reflections from the cast and crew.
Conclusion: This long-awaited release is sure to offer a nostalgic blast to those with fond childhood memories of The Watcher In The Woods. I wouldn't imagine that this title would greatly appeal to uninitiated DVD enthusiasts picking it up after hearing the hype on message boards and DVD sites, and I'd imagine most kids nowadays have been subjected to so many more extreme movies that The Watcher In The Woods will seem awfully dull by comparison. I wouldn't suggest The Watcher In The Woods as a purchase to new viewers, but to those well acquainted with the movies and looking forward to riding the wave of nostalgia, this DVD is highly recommended.
Note Of Thanks: Scott M. Bosco, the project consultant for this release, provided me with more detailed information about the audio mix, and this review has been updated accordingly. Anyone with any interest whatsoever in this DVD should visit Scott's site to get some idea of how frustrating it can be to work with as uncooperative an organization as Disney.