The reflection of a hundred Karens in the mirror room of an amusement park, blindfolded, and screaming at the immensely horrified ( and rightfully so) Jan Curtis played by Lynn Holly Johnson, gave me the chills, the very first time I watched ‘ The Watcher in the Woods ‘.
A context as frightening and unexpected could have been conjured up by no other genius than that of John Hough himself, the celebrated Film director famous for his Twins of Evil, The Legend of Hell House, and Return from Witch Mountain.
In his endeavor, he was aided by Vincent McEveety, the brain behind Emmy snatchers like ‘The Untouchables‘ and ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E‘
In the early 80s, when the Walt Disney Productions were catering to the horror taste of an older audience, the 1980 adaptation of the novel by Florence Engel Randall came as a lip-smacker, a true horror ride into the unknown.
No wonder, the movie had undergone several setbacks in 1980, the year it was released. Only after 10 days of the premier, the movie was pulled back from the Ziegfeld theater following a towering amount of backlash by its viewers and critics.
Overwhelmed by the negative response, Disney decided to reshoot the climax scene, which added to the already swell budget of the movie.
The horror knit intricately into a fine motley of occult, secret societies, and suspenseful sci-fi elements, advocates the thrill of the film, adding to its creepy atmosphere and giving it that oomph factor.
The eerie music at the opening introduces us to Jan Curtis ( Lynn Holly Johnson), the protagonist and her folks – mother (Helen), father (Paul), and a cheeky younger sister, Ellie.
The family moves into a rural England Manor, owned by Mrs. Alywood, a melancholic old woman, played by none other than Bette Davis, the queen of horror in the ’80s herself.
The moment she sets foot in the manor, Jan starts to feel ‘things’, an uncanny presence, she can’t quite put her finger on. Soon she begins encountering a strange blue light in the woods.
Of the numerous scary moments dotted throughout the movie, a particular scene that I found horrifying was the one where Jan, while looking into an antique mirror, sees, in place of her reflection, the apparition of a blindfolded blonde girl. The next minute, with a loud thump, the mirror shatters into a thousand shards.
After a few days of living on the property, Ellie adopts a puppy.
While playing with her pet one fine morning, Ellie goes into a trance-like state and scribbles the name nerak ( Karen spelled backward) on a dusty window pane. The name ‘Nerak’ had gathered much spooky fame back in the era for its brilliant use in the film.
The view catches the eyes of Mary Fleming, the single mother of Mike, whom Jan has befriended not too long ago, and she runs away in a hurry as if being painfully reminded of a memory concealed deep inside.
The mystery takes off when Mike tells Jan the story of Mrs. Alywood’s missing daughter, who goes by the same name.
One day, while chasing Nerak, Ellie wanders into the thick of the forest. Worried about her sister, Jan goes looking for her.
She finds Ellie and Nerak by a small pond. Jan tries to scold Ellie for behaving poorly but instead, gets mesmerized by the beauty of the scenery.
All of a sudden, Jan notices the blue light in the bosom of the pool. Blinded by a flash of abrupt lightning, she loses her balance and falls into the deluge.
In one of the most spine-chilling scenes, we find a terrifying Bette Davis poking at a nearly drowning Jan with a wooden stick, apparently, to aid the catastrophe.
The brilliance of Bette Davis’ onscreen charisma and the spooky atmosphere has us all under her wicked spell as we watch in nail-biting silence the ashen face of Jan, underwater, trying to surface for a breath of life.
What we later come to realize, is that Mrs. Alywood was trying to save her, and after successfully doing so, brings her and Ellie over to her home.
Meanwhile, Mike, after much interrogation, digs out the information from his mother that she was present with the protagonist, the day she disappeared. Jan finds out the names of Karen’s friends from Mrs. Alywood, who narrates to her, the events that she had witnessed that day.
Jan tries to persuade John Keller, a wealthy recluse, and a close associate of Karen, to tell her the occurrences of the eventful day, but to no avail.
While wandering into the forest, Jan has a chance encounter with a hermit, Tom Woods, who also confesses being present at the church with Karen and the rest of the group.
We are, for the first time, let in on the bizarre events that took place on the day of Karen’s disappearance, as we listen on with bated breath.
(Spoiler Alert Ahead!)
Tom narrates the story of a seance-like initiation ceremony, (a mandatory step to becoming a member), being held that night, the very night Karen disappeared amidst the darkness of a lunar eclipse. She vanished into thin air when a flash of lightning struck the bell tower in the church.
Jan resolves to recreate the event, bringing us to the edge of our seats, right in the middle of nail-biting suspense.
She assembles Mary, John, and Tom hoping that the recreational ceremony would bring back the lost Karen.
Ellie, in the meantime, goes in a trance-like state, while trying to watch the eclipse. Her cherry voice changes into a mechanical one, while her childish softness turns rigid.
At the chapel, we find Mary, John, and Tom all standing in a circle, linking hands, in the same manner they had originally been positioned during the time of the Karen’s disappearance.
In the alter, where Karen once stood, now stands Jan, blindfolded, ready to face her unknown fate.
With a strong gust of wind searing through the windows of the church, Ellie appears, transfixed, uttering mechanically, the incidents that led to the misplacement of Karen.
About 30 years ago, as a result of an accidental switch, Karen swapped places with an unknown presence from a different dimension. This explains the alien energy haunting the woods, while Karen stayed stuck in the tangles of time.
As the initiation ceremony starts, the watcher leaves the body of Ellie and is revealed as a pillar of bright flashing light that engulfs Jan and lifts her up into the empty space.
Mike, in the moment of truth, pulls the protagonist away and succeeds in saving her life.
Finally, the eclipse comes to an end, and Karen, being the same age as before, and still blindfolded, reappears, at the exact same time Mrs. Alywood enters the church.
“Karen, you’re home” still feels as grand and beautiful and to date, hits home.
Personally, I would have loved watching the original ending. Aliens flying across the empty space is completely my cup of tea. If only the sci-fi elements had more coherence, the movie, without a doubt would have gained much appreciation.
1. Bette Davis as Mrs. Alywood
Noted for acing a wide variety of films ranging from Melodrama to Horror, Bette Davis became the first ever to bag the nominations for best actress in Academy Awards, 5 times in a row.
Watching Davis, in The Watcher in the Woods was such a delight. Her charisma blended amazingly with the eerie atmosphere of the setting. The expression of the duality of her character splendidly portrayed her long accumulated experience.
Her best works include- ‘All about Eve’, ‘Whatever happened to baby Jane?’, ‘Dark Victory’ and more.
2. Lynn Holly Johnson as Jan Curtis
An excellent figure skater, Lynn Holly Johnson is widely renowned for her role as BiBi Dahl in ‘For your eyes only‘, the 1981 James Bond Film, and ‘Ice Castles’, which fetched her a Golden Globe nomination in 1980.
Despite being a figure skater, Lynn Holly seemed almost a natural while playing Jan Curtis. Her fear and frustration felt almost palpable as we kept her company throughout the journey.
3. Carroll Baker as Helen Curtis
Famed for her coquettish role in ‘Baby doll’, Caroll Baker was nominated for the Oscars, in the category of best lead in 1957. Of the accolades she had received, the 1957 Golden Globe remains unparalleled.
Carroll Baker was a dream on screen. Despite having a relatively smaller screen time, her enigma as a loving mother was very vividly portrayed. We got a piece of her motherly affection when the family moved into the manor and also her rage when she figured out something was not right with her kids.
4. Kyle Egan Richards or Kyle Richards as Ellie Curtis
Kicking off her career as a child actress, Kyle Richards has a variety of films to her credit like ‘The Car‘, ‘Eaten alive‘, and ‘Halloween’. She has also made an appearance in ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’, an American reality TV series.
Being a child actress, Kyle had the most intriguing role in the whole cast. From a jolly little kid to a possessed character speaking in a mechanical voice, the transition was definitely commendable.
Other casts include:
- Benedict Taylor as Mike Fleming
- David McCallum as Paul Curtis
- Richard Pasco as Tom Colley
- Frances Cuka as Mary Fleming
- Katharine Levy as Karen
Brian Clemens’ movie adaptation of the 1976 novel, ‘A Watcher in the woods‘ by Florence Engel Randall, donning a different conclusion, was a ‘tad bit too dark’ according to The Walt Disney productions. As a result of which, the ending was revised under the guidance of Rosemary Anne Sisson, and another later revision was added by Gerry Day.
Approximately 152 alternate endings were submitted when the movie was pulled from theaters. The official DVD version, or the version we know today, was penned by Harrison Ellenshaw.
Release Date of The Watcher in the Woods
The Watcher in the Woods suffered an unusual demise after a brief run ( 10 days) at the Ziegfeld Theater, in New York City, beginning on April 17, 1980.
As a result of an overwhelming dismissal by the audience, Disney resolved to alter the conclusion and make it more coherent and less otherworldly.
Re-release of The Watcher in the Woods
After 18 odd months, the film made its return with a number of reshoots and a completely new ending.
The movie also featured PG advice ( parental guidance suggested ), which was new for the Disney productions, making it a suspense thriller aimed at an older viewer group.
Anchor Bay Entertainment, in 1999 released a special DVD edition of the film. The edition was, however, rescheduled for an indefinite period.
Finally, in 2002, the movie adaptation of the novel was released, equipped with an audio commentary from the director himself, John Hough and both the alternate endings could be viewed separately.
What was intended to be the original ending was too splendid and herculean to be completed satisfactorily by the time the film premiered.
An insectoid alien, abducting Lynn Holly and flying over an alien landscape to his impaired spaceship. After Holly rescued Karen, who was trapped in a prism, they were teleported back to the church where Karen and her mother were reunited.
The film’s brief screening in New York city had fragmented sequences from the original conclusion that left the audience flabbergasted, earning the movie a label of having no conclusion at all.
The third and the final revised ending featured a much logical explanation of the ending, a less gruesome alien, and a much-needed ‘coherent’ wrap-up.
Along with the ending, the entree of the movie was altered as well. In the original cut, the credits started rolling after a sequence in which a little girl witnesses the watcher while playing in the woods, who then proceeds to put her doll aflame by striking it with a blue beam of light.
This entree was probably penned keeping in mind a much older audience. This age is much accustomed to bland horror and would have relished such a beginning to the movie. But as they say, to each their own.
Where to Watch?
If your interest has been piqued by this movie review, you can watch “The Watcher in the Woods” on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The movie flaunts a smashing 6.5 on IMDB and 43% on rotten tomatoes you can also watch the movie on Vudu or Hulu.
Sadly, this VHS and DVD classic is unavailable in Disney+
Other Horror Films of the ’80s
1. Inferno (1980) directed by Dario Argento
( Rotten tomatoes 64%)
2. The Masque of Red Death (1990) directed by Alan Birkinshaw
( Rotten tomatoes 67% )
3. The Beyond (1981) directed by Lucio Fulci
( Rotten tomatoes 67%)
4. Cat’s eye (1985) directed by Lewis Teague
( Rotten tomatoes 67%)
While the movie has not done particularly brilliantly in the theaters and is not a specific favorite among the critics. Yet there are moments of absolute thrill that no one can deny had chills run down their spines.
The scene where the protagonist struggles underwater for a single breath, had us biting our nails.
When the supernatural power starts lifting the protagonist off of the aisle gave us a fresh bout of suspense and thrill.
The DVD version of the film continues to entertain us to date, no matter what the premises.
A roller coaster ride of suspense, horror, and thrill, The Watcher in the Woods, takes us through a wild journey of a variety of emotions. We remain at the edge of our seats at every moment throughout the entire run of the movie.