“Sometimes there seems to be something out there. Sometimes I hear someone whispering in the wind.”
If you’ve listened to Daily Dead’s Corpse Club podcast, then you might know that half the time I open my mouth, it’s to talk about Disney Channel Original Movies (no matter what the topic of the episode is). I’ve always found great delight in how movies released on the family-friendly network can still retain nightmare-inducing thrills and chills, whether it be through a theater of frozen bodies in Halloweentown or the sharp-toothed imaginary friend in Don’t Look Under the Bed.
While the DCOMs have had their macabre moments, the truth is that previous generations of viewers got to experience an even more spooky side of Disney on the big screen. In the cinematic world following the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Walt Disney Productions wasn’t holding back when it came to capturing (and scaring the living daylights out of) the imaginations of young adults at the cinema and in their living rooms. While I fondly remember Halloweentown and Under Wraps as benchmarks in my early horror education, other generations had Something Wicked This Way Comes, Return to Oz, and Mr. Boogedy to provide ample frights in the House that Mickey Mouse Built.
Before any of those films were released, though, there was The Watcher in the Woods. Directed by John Hough (Escape to Witch Mountain, Twins of Evil) and based on the 1976 novel by Florence Engel Randall, The Watcher in the Woods may be remembered by some as a 1980 film and by others as a movie from 1981. Truth be told, it’s really both, depending on what version you’ve watched, since the film was re-released with a new ending directed by Vincent McEveety (with a figure of light substituting for a more elaborate practical effects creation) in ’81 following its limited theatrical release in ’80. Since it technically made its big screen debut in ’80, though, it’s eligible for our Class of 1980 roll call.
It’s also eligible for being one helluva creepy PG movie, one that not only scares on the surface, but also slithers into the psyche with some seriously spooky subtext and a message about kindness that never comes across as preachy. There’s a lot going on in The Watcher in the Woods, but 40 years after its initial release, most of it still works surprisingly well (of course, your mileage may vary).
Let’s start with the characters, specifically the Curtis family. Comprised of musician dad Paul (David McCallum), professional author mother Helen (Carroll Baker), older sister Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson), and younger sister Ellie (Kyle Richards), the Curtis fam are instantly a fun bunch, even when they’re moving into a gorgeous yet ominous mansion that just oozes “foreboding” from its ivy-covered pores. When they pull up to the secluded homestead, Ellie straight up suggests that a ghost lives there, while her dad asks the realtor what the catch is. This family is aware of the fact that something is not quite right about their new home, and that’s part of their charm, but aside from their horror IQ sensibilities, the Curtis family are fun to watch and easy to empathize with simply because they are good people who get along with one another.
So many times when we see a new family move into a creepy house, the family itself is already haunted, be it from a divorce, an accident, or just a genuine dislike for one another. Not so in the Curtis household. Mother and father get along great (no sneaking suspicions or rude rebukes to be found here), and older sister Jan actually enjoys spending time with her younger shadow, Ellie, who is always quick to make everyone laugh and seems to care more about her older sister’s wellbeing than her own.
But surely this idyllic family is only put on a pedestal to be shattered by the seemingly supernatural forces at work later in the film, right? That’s what I thought, but again The Watcher in the Woods defies expectations, as the Curtis family’s genuine love and affection for one another and those around them shines through in their darkest moments. Even the enigmatic and gloomy Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), who lives in the guest house next door and grieves the loss of her daughter, Karen, nearly 30 years ago, can’t help but be influenced by the kind nature of her new neighbors, gradually shedding her icy demeanor to reveal her raw scars that still pulsate with pain just below the surface. The fact that Jan could be a doppelgänger for Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter certainly helps, but it’s Jan’s determination to shed light on a decades-long mystery that really causes Mrs. Aylwood to open up for the first time in years.
Jan’s kindness has a positive effect on everyone in The Watcher in the Woods. When she and her sister begin to be haunted by an unseen force, rather than wallow in her own fear, she sets about trying to un-haunt those around her who are plagued with guilt and remorse (which can arguably be worse than hearing a ghostly voice every now and then). Is Jan motivated by the creepy things happening to her, like not seeing her reflection in the mirror, witnessing visions of a blindfolded girl who looks just like her, and watching her possessed sister write weird messages in their bathroom? Sure. But instead of being scared by the supernatural force, she seeks to understand it, and ultimately save it rather than destroy it.
One of the more interesting aspects of The Watcher in the Woods is that there really is nothing to destroy, anyway. There are no stereotypical villains to be found, no antagonistic monster lurking among the trees or sinister spirit intent on causing pain. Does the supernatural force cause Jan and Ellie some stress along the way? Yeah, deadly beams of light shot from the void will do that to a person, but hey, at least it’s not done out of ill will. Even the humans in the story who come across as angry or suspicious (such as Karen’s now-adult and less-than-friendly former friends) only behave callously because they're haunted by the lack of closure from a tragic incident in their childhood—something that they’re convinced by Jan to help rectify rather than cover up.
Don’t be lulled into a totally feel-good story, though, because just because there aren’t evil forces at work in The Watcher in the Woods doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of those aforementioned nightmare-inducing moments to be found. This film was directed by John Hough, after all, who helmed the Richard Matheson adaptation The Legend of Hell House in 1973. In between Jan and Ellie’s not-so-random acts of kindness, we’re treated to some great jump scares (the funhouse coaster might be an all-timer when it comes to the Disney catalogue), plenty of eerie first-person camerawork that would make Mrs. Voorhees and Michael Myers proud, and a scintillating score by Stanley Myers that is far more perilous than it is playful (even evoking Jaws in one tense scene of pursuit in the woods).
So don’t let the kind-hearted core of the film fool you: this is one creepy Disney movie, even viewed through a lens 40 years down the road. But it’s that kindness that helps make it even creepier. As the old adage in horror goes, you need characters you can care about, because then you’ll give a damn when they’re potentially being haunted by a possessive entity from another dimension. The great thing about The Watcher in the Woods is that you immediately care about the characters because they care about each other. And that’s something that resonates now as much as I’m sure it did in 1980. Plus, the laser beams don’t hurt, either.
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