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Saturday Matinee

October 29, 2011

Disney Cartoon #43, Spooky Spectacular Week: The Watcher in the Woods (October 17, 1980 & October 7, 1981) - published October 29, 2011

by Albert Gutierrez

Look closely. What do you see? What do you think you see? Where does it begin or end? And who knows the answer?

In the 1970's, Walt Disney Productions' live-action arm could be defined in two ways. The first was the big-budget hits and misses. These were films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Island at the Top of the World, and Pete's Dragon. They were the studio's efforts to match the successes of Mary Poppins and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. They didn't, and so the studio's bread and butter were play-it-safe family-friendly comedies with equally-absurd titles like One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing and The North Avenue Irregulars. Nothing's wrong with a little cornball now and then, and I love both those films dearly in spite of their wacky plotlines. However, a genre that the studio had consciously avoided was horror. The company's unofficial mantra at the time was "We may bore you, but we will never shock you."

However, shock had been one of the backbones of Disney's animated works in their first few decades. This past month saw my own analysis of the macabre in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the intentionally-misleading terror and jubilance of "The Skeleton Dance." There are still plenty of other sequences or shorts that contain material that can shock children or the children-at-heart. Disney's return to horror in the late 1970s began with several chilling scenes and menacing designs in their sci-fi film The Black Hole. It would come full force in 1980/1981's The Watcher in the Woods. The content of the film was considered so intense that trailers added disclaimers and the voiceover always ended with "It is NOT a fairy tale."

The Watcher in the Woods focuses on Jan Curtis (Lynn-Holly Johnson), who has moved into a dreary English manor with her family: parents Helen and Paul (Carroll Baker and David McCallum), and younger sister Ellie (Kyle Richards, sister of Escape to Witch Mountain's Kim Richards). The caretaker of the manor is Mrs. Aylwood (the legendary Bette Davis), who takes a disturbing liking to Jan. Jan soon realizes that she looks just like Mrs. Aylwood's daughter Karen, a young girl who disappeared thirty years ago. Jan decides to investigate into Karen's disappearance, piecing together what happened one fateful night in the chapel. In her investigation, she reunites Karen's childhood friends, all of whom dared not speak of what happened. An attempt to bring Karen back - from wherever she went - culminates in a chilling and climactic scene that returns everyone to the abandoned chapel, with the Watcher in the Woods now ready to make itself known.

The experience of The Watcher in the Woods works best when you don't know the history behind the film or what the differences are between the three endings. Readers are advised to watch the film before continuing with the rest of the article. It is available at most stores during the Halloween season. All the DVDs contain the 1981 theatrical version with the possessed-Ellie ending. However, the "Other World" ending is much more satisfying. If you wish to watch that version, I recommend this:

1. Buy or rent The Watcher in the Woods on DVD. It was released by Anchor Bay in 2002 and Disney in 2004. Disney's DVD is more accessible as the Anchor Bay version is out of print.

2. Watch the film up until the 80-minute mark, specifically at the 1:10:40 timecode. This is the scene when Jan calls Mike on the phone.

3. Go to the Special Features and select the longer Alternate Ending, which runs 13 minutes, 38 seconds. The alternate ending starts with the Jan/Mike phone conversation, but will contain the "Other World" ending rather than the theatrical version.

I first saw The Watcher in the Woods in September 2004, after reading a review of the film online and ordering the newly-released Disney DVD. What I found most interesting about the film was not what was included, but what wasn't. This is not your everyday horror movie with blood spurting out from slash wounds and virgins hiding in the shower. It is Disney, after all. Keeping that in mind, what they achieve is quite amazing. The first hour of the film is what sets viewers up for the possible endings. We get a very moody style, with an emphasis on suspense and re-occuring images of blindfolded Karen. Every time Ellie is possessed, it's both menacing and heartbreaking. The film succeeds in scaring the audience, but not to the point of running out of the theatre screaming. It's the complete opposite: the audience can't stop watching because they want to see what happens next.

Throughout the majority of the film, we only get hints of the Watcher, and never really are treated to a true appearance until the end. This is an excellent storytelling device, and one previously used in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). Even the characters aren't fully aware of the Watcher. Yet there are instances where they seem to see or know something that the audience isn't privy to. By not seeing what the characters see, and having what they know only hinted, the audience is left continually wondering. Viewers become just as suspicious as Tom Colley, as terrified as Mary Fleming, as untrusting as John Keller. Most importantly, they become as curious as Jan Curtis. The film's foundation is always on what is unknown. Then in the end, every piece of the puzzle magically comes back together again, and there is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction.

Granted, the satisfaction will differ based on which ending you watch. In the final theatrical version, Ellie is possessed by the Watcher yet again, merely to give a hasty verbal explanation accentuated with flashbacks. The ceremony continues, and there's a more ethereal appearance for the Watcher. We get some impressive special effects, and the dubious nature of the rescue of Karen still allows for the audience to fill in the blanks. But ultimately, the end result feels significantly weaker to the "Other World" ending because it is more focused on merely telling the audience what will happen, rather than showing it.

If you opt for the "Other World" ending, you get to see the actual Other World. This is the ending that the film should have, as it provides better reason and explanations for the entirety of the film. The "Other World" ending plays out as natural courses of events for the film's final act. In addition, the Watcher itself is seen in full view. He is nearly as menacing as the Xenomorph in Alien, but intrinsically is a much more benevolent creature. After all, all he wants is to go home.

Even more interesting is the shorter alternate ending on the DVD. We still see the Watcher, but we don't see "Other World." As a result, there is still some mystery to the resolution. Mother Helen is more confused than ever, as is the audience. Without seeing the Other World, Jan's explanation for where she was is more vague. This ending leaves viewers only slightly satisfied, but still wondering. I personally think it's a great hook for the film and fulfills it's overarching theme of confronting the unknown. However, the strongest ending is still the complete "Other World."

As I mentioned earlier, there are two DVDs for The Watcher in the Woods. The film was first released by Anchor Bay in 2002. The small distribution studio had licensed a variety of 1970s/1980s live-action Disney films (along with 1967's The Happiest Millionaire), and released them to DVD and VHS in the late '90s and early 2000s. When they approached Disney about releasing a true Director's Cut for The Watcher in the Woods, they were met with resistance from the Mouse House. It's an interesting story that is too complex to be condensed into a few sentences here. A full story can be found at Scott Michael Bosco's now-defunct Digital Cinema web site, thankfully archived by the Wayback Machine here:

Until we see a definitive version of The Watcher in the Woods, the Anchor Bay DVD is easily the best version of the film, for it not only contains the film and its alternate endings, but an informative audio commentary with director John Hough. After Anchor Bay's contract with Disney expired, Disney then started re-releasing the Anchor Bay films under their own label. The Watcher in the Woods was re-released in 2004, minus the Hough commentary. You can generally find this version still on the store shelves. During October's Halloween season, it's often on sale, along with other seasonal titles like Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and Hocus Pocus (1993), both of which I'd also highly recommend for spooky spectacular viewing.


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