Do not rent creepy-ass English manor houses – especially if you are an American family with kids – this is a simple rule that the Curtis family fails to abide by in Disney’s The Watcher in the Woods. Though based on the book by Florence Engel Randall – which bears very little resemblance to the film – this is easily one of the better Disney live-action movies of the time as it is a genuinely scary and well-crafted story, one that will send shivers down the spine of any lover of ghost stories.
We are first introduced to Helen (Carroll Baker) and Paul Curtis (David McCallum), and their two daughters Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and Ellie (Kyle Richards), who are looking for a nice place to stay while in England, and when shown a wonderfully charming English manor, one that seems to be perfect – at an astounding low rent – they decide to take it. Now before taking possession of the house, they have to get approval from the owner Mrs. Alywood (Bette Davis), and they get it after Jan has a creepy interrogation with the old woman. It seems Mrs. Alywood had a daughter that went missing under tragic circumstances, and Jan may remind the old woman of her.
Neither of these two factors can deter Helen and Paul from such a good deal, but unlike Jan they didn’t see a strange glow in the woods or feel its dark presence. Also when Jan placed her hand on a bedroom window it cracked into a triangle fracture cutting her finger. The first clue to the mystery of the woods.
Later while unpacking Jan puts up a god-awful tacky mirror, but it’s not the golden cherubs that are the most frightening element, no it’s the fact that Jan doesn’t seem to have a reflection in the mirror.
The mirror cracks into another triangle fracture, and within the fracture is the image of a girl in a blindfold, her arms reaching out for help and then the mirror completely shatters and topples to the floor.
Unfortunately for Jan, she is just a young girl in a horror story so nobody believes her – her family aren’t dicks about it, they just brush it off as a product of her overactive imagination – which honestly is what most people would do, and the Curtis family do come off as one of the better examples of those found in such horror films.
More and more disturbing events pile up; the girls hear whispering in their bedrooms, Ellie names her new puppy Narek after a voice told her to – she writes it on a dirty window so from the other side we see it as “Karen” the name of the missing girl – and Jan almost drowns when a flash of blue light in the water spills her into its depths, where she is trapped by submerged branches. Luckily she is saved by the timely intervention of Mrs. Aylwood.
It’s from Mrs. Aylwood that we find out about the night many years ago, the night when her 17-year daughter Karen snuck out of the house to play with three friends; Mary, Tom Colley, and John Keller, at the ruins of an old chapel during an eclipse. When Mrs. Aylwood arrived at the chapel lightning struck the old ruins, setting everything ablaze, and all of the kids managed to escape, all but Karen. They searched and searched, but her body was never found.
More and more mysterious events plague poor Jan and her sister; strange voices and humming in the woods, premonitions warning of danger, wild winds kicking up out of nowhere, all of it hinging on the disappearance of Karen thirty years ago. It’s at this point that Jan goes into full-on Nancy Drew mode, and begins to investigate in earnest. She tracks down the three survivors of that night at the chapel, but only hermit Tom Colley gives up key details, such as the fact that Karen had been brought blindfolded to the chapel, to undergo an initiation to join their “Secret Society”
But during the ritual a storm blew up during the eclipse – lightning hit the chapel and the three other kids fled in terror as the chapel was engulfed in flames – leaving poor blindfolded Karen behind. Later Tom told how he had looked back just as the chapel bell collapsed, where he had last seen Karen standing, but she was no longer there. No one believed Tom, as there was no other way out of the chapel.
When Helen Curtis witnesses Ellie in some fugue state – as unknown forces channel through her daughter their demands that they find “the door” before it’s too late – she grabs both her daughters, packs their things, and flees the house. This is a completely reasonable response to seeing your daughter possessed, and not something one sees enough in horror films today. Unfortunately for dear Helen, it is too late as the force in the woods will not let them leave. Their car dies on a rickety bridge, and it’s only Jan’s premonition of danger that gets them out of the car and off the bridge before lightning strikes it.
The next morning, back at the manor, dominoes begin to fall when Ellie reminds Jan that today is the day of the eclipse and that “They hardly ever happen” and with that little tidbit added to all the other mysterious events that have occurred, it leads Jan to believe that they must re-enact the ritual bring back Karen. Jan is able to convince Mary (Frances Cuka) Tom Colley (Richard Pasco) and John Keller (Ian Bannen) to come back to the chapel, and maybe, just maybe find out what happened to Karen.
Things get a bit dodgy now as there are three different cuts to the ending of this movie – originally when they performed the ritual the “Watcher in the Woods” manifested in the chapel, it was a strange alien creature that then grabbed Jan and takes her to another dimension, and this is where we find poor Karen, who had been trapped there, suspended in time for thirty years.
Jan walks over to Karen – who is in some kind of light field – grabs her hands, and they are whisked through time and space back to the chapel. We then learn that when these four kids did the ritual it caused an accidental exchange resulting in Karen being stuck aboard a strange otherworldly dimensional spacecraft, while the alien was trapped in the woods on Earth. Sadly critics and audiences alike laughed at the puppeteered monstrosity, so the ending was greatly trimmed and released a year later with major alterations.
Actually the stuff aboard the alien craft never even got released – as it looked even goofier than the alien puppet – all audiences originally saw was the alien appearing, embracing Jan and then vanishing, next Jan reappeared with Karen and everyone is reunited for a happy ending.
The version that got released a year later – the only one currently available on video – has Ellie showing up during the ritual and once again being possessed by The Watcher. She/It explains clearly the events that happened thirty years ago – going on about how it was the magnetic pull of the eclipse which caused the dimensional door to open and Karen and The Watcher to change places – and with but a flash of light Karen is returned. Mrs. Aylwood shows up out of nowhere and hugs her daughter. Fade to black. It’s a bit of an abrupt ending, to say the least, and doesn’t give us much closure.
None of the endings work completely on their own, but all of them are really fascinating to watch, and this was when Disney really started to make films for a wider audience as it was released through Buena Vista Distribution which became their main arm of adult films. You also have to give them credit for being one of the first movies to start in one genre and then shift into another with the explanation of, “It was aliens.”
The Watcher in the Woods has had only a few DVD releases – the one from Anchor Bay being the best – but there is a good chance your local library may have some version on hand and it’s certainly well worth checking out.
The Watcher in the Woods
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
This is a decent spooky mystery and one of Disney’s best live action outings. The entire cast is excellent and the movie has some solid chills, but sadly due to effects techniques of the time, the ending never quite works.