Synopsis: An American family move into a British country house only to encounter malevolent spirits. The ghost of the owner’s daughter, long missing, torments the family’s young girl.
Stars: Bette Davis, Carroll Baker, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards, David McCallum
Director: John Hough
Running Length: 84 minutes
TMMM Nostalgia Score: (8/10) TMMM Actual Score: (4/10)
Review: Every single one of us has that certain film or television show that we have this picture of in our mind from when we were younger. It’s frozen in golden amber and locked inside a memory you want to keep right where it is for fear of anything spoiling those feelings you experienced while taking it in or the company you were with. The trouble is, eventually, you’re going to come across those same films and TV shows as you grow older and that’s when the balloon pops and you have to face up to the harsh truths that what you thought was the bees knees as a kid was really a cow pie.
My greatest example of that is The Watcher in the Woods. Released in 1980 by, of all studios, The Walt Disney Company, this supernatural PG-rated horror film was an odd project for Disney to take on. Yes, they’d had a run of films leaning towards the older child (this was before the late ‘90s boom of animation and when live-action went silly again) but this was something different entirely. Adapted from Florence Engel Randall’s strange but spooky 1976 novel A Watcher in the Woods and filmed across the pond in several picturesque location settings, it had a top line cast starting wtih Oscar winner Bette Davis along with Carroll Baker (Kindergarten Cop) and then-popular Lynn-Holly Johnson (For Your Eyes Only) who was skating high off of her success in Ice Castles. Kyle Richards (Halloween) would play Johnson’s younger sister as part of a family that moved to beautiful English manor that came cheap…and they soon find out why.
I can’t tell you how much I remembered this movie being scary. I mean, I really thought in my head this was what all horror films were like and since it played so often on the Disney Channel during October it became a staple in my house. Over the years, I had clearly forgotten about it because when I went to watch it again a few years back I was stunned by how pedestrian, schlocky, and shoddy it all was. It’s barely held together by toothpaste and paperclips and you can see why Disney allowed the movie to play for about two weeks in theaters before pulling it after negative reactions and recutting it to play more to their audience. No matter, I’ve seen both versions and neither are any good whatsoever. I know this may not win me any points with the legions of fans that worship The Watcher in the Woods but I’m calling it like it is.
What a disappointment, too, because everything is there to make something that doesn’t have to be super scary but at least could maintain some semblance of a mood for a period of time. The supernatural element of the piece has potential, as does the mystery surrounding its origin. Yet it’s almost impossible to watch because the actors keep getting in the way. The performances are so dreadful that they distract from the plot, not to mention poor Davis has to lurk around the joint and appear menacing though we clearly know she’s harmless in the overall arc of the plot. Johnson, in particular, is just horrible and thankfully Richards matured into a less automaton-like actor.
A 2017 remake for television starring Angelica Huston didn’t fare much better and perhaps The Watcher in the Woods is just an entity that can’t be captured on film. It’s certainly not represented well in this Disney production which would thankfully be one of their few attempts at this type of genre film. If you’re up for a little heartbreak and haven’t seen this in a while, go ahead and give this one a re-watch. Those that haven’t experienced this ghastly ghostly film should beware. Try The Haunting of Bly Manor for a much more interesting UK-set ghost tale.