The Watcher in the Case

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We’re in week three of our Disney Halloween series! This week we’re talking about the 1980 film “The Watcher in the Woods.” This is a supernatural, sci-fi thriller set in England. 

The story preys on two classic fears: The Woods, and being watched. I know it sounds silly when you think of that and the title of the movie, but it’s true. There are a lot of supernatural ties to the woods. It’s a place where many feel close to nature, but it’s also a place that holds terrifying tales of people losing their way and never being seen again. 

 

When we’re in the woods, we feel small. The trees tower over us, and the foliage blinds us from seeing long distances. Even if we venture in alone, we know we are surrounded by so many unseen animals and insects. So, the belief that there are mythical beasts or wandering spirits in the woods has been around for centuries. This is why the woods are a great place to tell scary stories. Even when we sit around the campfire, we’re not safe. We can be seen, but we can’t see beyond the flames. 

 

The other fear is being watched by an unknown person or thing. This is also known as scopophobia. We use the threat of observance to trick children into behaving; we tell them that Santa or his elves are watching every move they make. None of us like to feel that we are being watched, and it gives us a strange and creepy feeling, much like most of this film. 

 

Movie Beginnings:

  • Near the end of the 70’s moviegoers seemed to want more mature content.  Disney decided that they wanted to begin dipping into this latest craze. They began with The Black Hole (a sci-fi space adventure) and then proceeded with The Watcher in the Woods. Both of these films were meant to be PG in order to attract the audience to their new direction.  The Watchers producer Tom Leetch had told the head of the studio Ron Miller that “This could be our Exorcist.”  
  • It is based on a book by Florence Engel Randall which was turned into a screenplay by Brian Clemens.  Later though, Disney decided Clemen’s version delved too much into darkness and so they had revisions done by Harry Spalding, Rosemary Anne Sisson, and Gerry Day.
    • There are small differences, like Jan finds exes in mirrors instead of triangles
      • The presence in the woods reaches out to Jan’s father and shows him why its trapped
      • Instead of using Karen’s friends, it’s Mrs. Aylwood, Jan, and Ellie that have to complete a “triad of power” to bring Karen back
    •   The biggest difference is that the book ends before the seance with the girls heading into the woods. There is a cliff-hanger that doesn’t get resolved. 

 

Plot:

  • An American family moves to the British countryside with their two daughters Jan and Ellie. The family encounters Mrs. Aylwood, an old woman plagued by the mysterious disappearance of her daughter Karen 30 years ago. Jan and Ellie start to notice strange happenings in the house. Ellie hears whispers and music that she assumes comes from Jan, while Jan keeps seeing the image of a young girl trapped in mirrors. 
  • Jan learns that Karen disappeared during an eclipse, and that one is about to happen again. She tracks down everyone who might know what happened the night of her disappearance and demands answers. 
  • When Ellie becomes possessed by The Watcher, an unseen entity that has been communicating through her, Jan plans to hold a seance and bring Karen back. 

 

Starring:

  • Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood the mother of missing Karen
    • A very famous leading lady among those in Hollywood
    • One of her most famous roles being 1962’s drama What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
    • The release of this movie was to be set with Bette Davis’s 50th anniversary in the motion picture business which rushed the production of the films ending. 
      • This was her 85th feature film
    • She had expressed interest in playing a young Mrs. Aylwood and the present day Mrs. Aylwood.  John Hough therefore shot the scenes with her wearing makeup but afterward he privately told Davis that the scenes just didn’t work because nobody would believe she was in her forties.  She reportedly then looked him in the eye and told him “You’re goddamned right.”
  • Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan Curtis 
    • The part was announced publicly to originally be portrayed by Diane Lane but ended up being Lynn-Holly 
    • She rose to fame by her figure skating in the mid 70’s which led to her first movie Ice Castles where she plays a partially blind skater who is trying to make it to the Olympics.  
  • Kyle Richards as Ellie Curtis
    • She was a young child star that had a recurring role in Little House on the Prairie
    • She now is known for her tv personality on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills since 2010.
  • Carroll Baker as mother Helen Curtis
    • The now retired actress who had roles that ranged from innocent to bold which allowed her to be classified as a pin-up and a serious actress.
  • David McCallum as father Paul Curtis
    • Known now as Ducky from NCIS
  • Ian Bannen as Karen’s friend John Keller
  • Richard Pasco as Karen’s friend Tom Colley
  • Frances Cuka as Karen’s friend Mary Fleming
  • Benedict Taylor as Jan’s love interest Mike Fleming 

 

Making of the Movie:

  • Directed by John Hough and Vincent McEveety, The Watcher in the Woods was filmed at Pinewood Studios in England
  • After it’s premier in New York in 1980, it was pulled from theatres after 10 days because of the overwhelmingly negative reviews 
    • When Disney pulled the film from theatres, they replaced it with Mary Poppins and re-shot the final scenes
    • In the original version, the film shows a physical depiction of the Watcher, a horrifying monster that wraps itself around Jan and transports her to a different dimension 
      • Audiences hated the apparently unfinished graphics and practical effect of the watcher
      • The original ending was also confusing, making the story more clunky and hard to explain. We find that the watcher is an alien that suspended Karen in time and space when it was accidentally transported to our world in its place
        • In this version we also get an explanation of the Watcher, a creature from another dimension that “turns people into negative images”
      • In the new version, we don’t see any of this. The watcher appears as a beam of light. Jan disappears, and then reappears with Karen. The scene ends there with no explanation and we don’t see the reunification of Karen and her mother. 
  • The film also had an alternate beginning, with a girl playing with a doll in the woods. The watcher scares the girl, causing her to drop the doll and run away. There’s a burst of light that catches the doll on fire and the titles play over the melting doll’s face
    • An executive at Disney refused to allow the original beginning to be released on the DVD because it wasn’t in line with Disney’s brand
  • Many of the filming locations were used in “The Haunting” based on the book by Shirley Jackson. You might know this story, as it was adapted for a Netflix show as “The Haunting of Hill House” 
  • The movie was re-made in 2017 for Lifetime. It was directed by Melissa Joan Hart and Angelica Huston played the role of Mrs. Aylwood

Sources:

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/26186974/globegazette/

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/26187061/the_los_angeles_times/

https://web.archive.org/web/20091027052528/http://geocities.com/ditcin4/watchermystery.html

https://www.retrojunk.com/article/show/243/the-watcher-in-the-woods

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