Retro Reviews: Watcher In The Woods (1981)

A retro Disney movie, classified as a British/American horror film, Watcher in The Woods (1981) targeted its appeal to the teenage and young adult viewer. Directed by John Hough, it was adapted from a novel by the same name by Florence Engel Randall.

Watcher in the Woods (1981)

Retro Review: Watcher In the Woods (1981)

Loud screeching, stabbing music (reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) wastes precious little time letting us know this film is designed to scare you and compel you to keep watching. Immediately the viewer becomes privy to this little world of mysterious happenings and diverse clues. Centred around a huge English style manor and the surrounding forest area we soon see that things are just not going swimmingly for this unsuspecting family of four. Watcher in the Woods (1981) was actually filmed in the Buckinghamshire area in England.

The main character, Jan Curtis, played by Lynn-Holly Johnson seems to be singled out at the onset of action. We (and she) become immediately aware that something in the woods is “out to get her” and her little sister. Then as the movie continues, the pervading element of danger is omnipresent.

Remaining stellar cast members include Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood, Caroll Baker as Helen Curtis, David McCallum as Paul Curtis, and Kyle Richards as Ellie Curtis. Other notable players are Ian Bannen as John Keller, Frances Cuka as Mary Fleming and Richard Pasco as Tom Colley.

The plot is simple and plays out smoothly: Helen and Paul Curtis are Americans who move into the impressive old mansion with their two daughters. Soon however, strange events make them wonder just what is going on in the house and the surrounding isolated forest that seems to be effecting the girls. Add to this the superb performing presence of Mrs. Aylwood enhancing every scene she graces with her initial “creepy” demeanour and we become caught in the web of suspense and horror. Then when we discover that the seemingly “unfriendly” Mrs. Aylwood will remain living in the guest house where she has been living for many years and will not be leaving when the new family move in, an ominous situation is laid. In addition, Mrs Aylwood immediately notices that her new tenant Jan Curtis bears an uncanny and unsettling resemblance to her own daughter “Karen”, who went missing thirty years ago.

In suspenseful bits and drabs we find out that there was a horrifying occasion that occurred all those years ago in an abandoned and eery chapel in the woods. Eventually we also meet the three burdened characters involved in that tragic, supernatural event. We discover that event took place when they were all teenagers. The journey to the climactic ending is what makes the movie remain effectively mysterious and thrilling today.

An odd fact about “Watcher” is that there was so many endings proposed before the one they finally decided to use. In 1980 the film had production problems, so was removed from theatres and subsequently alternative endings were commissioned to the Disney writers. And on top of this in-house effort, several science-fiction writers were also brought in to independently create a suitable ending but astoundingly- not one of these re-writes were used. Harrison Ellenshaw, the film’s visual effects man, said that there were “roughly 152” alternate endings offered. And it was he who finally wrote the ending that was ultimately incorporated into the re-release of the film in 1981.

Personally, I thought Watcher in the Woods (1981) had a satisfactory ending, (which I will not spoil for those who have not yet seen the film)- albeit a little ambiguous.It did leave the viewer needing and wanting more, however. The multiple-ending attempt remains to this day interesting information that will forever enhance the history of this now somewhat, iconic, film.

Watch the Trailer below for Watcher in the Woods (1981)

I’m giving Watcher in the Woods (1981) a 6.5/10 rating because despite its weak points, it enwraps the viewer in its spell and has some genuinely suspenseful and disturbing moments. So much so, that I worry it could have a fear factor a little too intense for very young children. As Disney’s first attempt at a seriously spooky production, I believe it does make the cut.

Mesmerizing moments, good acting and a mystery I really did find fascinating, carried me along right to the ending- which I again admit could have been better. So much more could have been done to present “the Watcher” to us. Still, Watcher in the Woods (1981) is a great family movie to watch with older kids when you’re looking for a scary time, especially at Halloween.
Postscript: The release of the new “Watcher in the Woods” is scheduled for this October 21/2017 and is starring Angelica Houston.

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