The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

(Warning:  Spoilers ahead!)

This is an odd one.

For a brief moment in the Eighties, Disney turned out a number of fairly dark live action films at least nominally aimed at children.  This one is (at least on the surface) a moderately scary ghost story which strongly resembles the sort of horror films Hammer and Amicus were making in the Seventies, only with more of a family focus .

Which, yes, sounds mildly contradictory.

Bette Davis, looking very old, plays the seemingly crazy old woman renting her house to a young American family.  We get the usual sorts of strange events we expect:  broken mirrors and windows, whispered voices, strange lights, sudden bursts of wind, animals acting strangely.  It all has something to do with Bette Davis’ daughter Karen who vanished thirty years ago, during a children’s game.

And there is something else out there in the woods, watching them.

It’s interesting to note that its director, John Hough directed one of Hammer films’ Karnstein trilogyTwins of Evil, and the incredible Richard Matheson SF ghost hunting adaptation, The Legend of Hell House.  However, he really didn’t do many other horror films afterwards, and his only other notable genre film was the strange time travel/children’s adventure story adaptation, Biggles: Adventures in Time.

Of course, as this is a Disney film made during the later part of their live-action children’s films era, it was made in England with a scattering of aging and minor actors, including David McCallum (who doesn’t get much to do) and Ian Bannen.  These movies always remind of the “My Uncle the Shopping Cart” film-within-a-film in Joe Dante‘s Matinee, which might almost have been one of the ones I saw in the Seventies.  As usual, we have the teenaged daughter, Jan — played by a twenty-two year old — and a totally extraneous but teen-pleasing sequence, in this case involving a Motocross race.

However, it is the ending which brings the film into the realm of SF.

It turns out that the Watcher is not a ghost, but a creature from another dimension.  It gets Jan to help it return to its dimension and free Karen.

Unfortunately, this is where the film goes wrong.  The dazzling original ending featured an incredible and hideous alien creature and a sequence aboard a spaceship.

But the test audiences laughed at it.

They hurriedly replaced it with a new sequence shot by another director, with the creature invisible and Jan’s little sister speaking for it.  For a long time it was the only version available.

It’s terrible.

Fortunately, you can now see the original ending, as it has been included in the latest DVD release (but not the original release, so watch out!).  Peter Ellenshaw’s son Harrison did the mattes for the parallel dimension, and Henry Selick, the legendary stop-motion animator and creator of such films as Coraline and Nightmare Before Christmas, worked on the creature.  One hates to think how much they spent on the sequence, just to throw it all away.  Sad, really.

The joke is that something very similar happened with Roger Corman‘s Monster from the Ocean Floor:  he hurriedly replaced the creature at the end with a new puppet when audiences laughed at it, and only later learned that that was actually a GOOD reaction!

Oh, well, it’s an enjoyable little film, even if its abrupt twist at the ending never quite works as well as it should.  There are a lot of fake jump shocks (including one particularly good one involving a carnival ride), but on the other hand a modest supply of real scares.  It may be a little scary for its intended audience, but my nephews (age 6 and 8) did stick it out to the end.

And watched the deleted ending with the truly scary creature.

But Disney really needs to re-release it in a “director’s cut” with the original ending – and the theatrical version included as an extra.  It’s a far better film.

And maybe if they’d used it, the film wouldn’t have died at the box office.

(This is the long lost “long” ending)


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