Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Watcher in the Woods

   I first saw this movie when it hit theaters in 1981. I was unaware until this week that the film had had a sneak peek release in 1980 but had been pulled because the ending was deemed confusing and too scary. More about that later. This movie is 33 years old so I'm not going to worry about spoilers in this review. You've been warned.
   The plot of the movie involves a family comprised of husband, wife, and two daughters, who move into an old manor house in the English countryside. The house's owner, played by Betty Davis, lives in a cottage next door. The older daughter Jan (Lynn Holly Johnson) begins to see strange lights in the woods and later the ghostly figure of a young girl who appears in mirrors or other reflective surfaces.
   Jan learns that the old woman's daughter Karen disappeared during a seance/initiation ceremony performed by three local youths during a solar eclipse 30 years back. A bolt of lightning struck the old chapel where the ceremony occurred, setting the building afire. Three of the kids escaped, but not Karen. However one of the three had looked back and he claimed that Karen had vanished before the chapel roof collapsed. Jan begins to realize that there is something in the woods around the manor stalking she and her sister and to stop the 'haunting' she must solve the mystery of what happened to Karen.
  Back in 1980 Trailers for the movie stressed Watcher in the Woods was NOT a standard Disney film and wasn't meant for small children. It actually is pretty creepy. There's a lot of the special effects one expects from this sort of film. Odd camera angles. Mysterious winds from nowhere. Steadycam shots of something following the protagonists. The camera work is moody and claustrophobic.
   Now, about that ending. When I saw the movie in the theater, it was revealed that the titular Watcher was not a ghost, but an extra dimensional being. Somehow the solar eclipse and the seance had caused the being to switch places with Karen, trapping the girl in the creature's dimension and he in ours. This is somewhat Lovecraftian in of itself, but it gets better.
   In the movie I saw, the extra dimensional being was shown as a pillar of light, but in the original cut the creature was pure Lovecraft, with membranous wings, a Cthulhu style skull and long, spidery limbs and fingers. It was quite a surprise for me tonight when I saw it. Just think. I could have seen a Lovecraftian monster onscreen back when I was a teenager. THAT would have been a kick.
   So anyway, I enjoyed the film. It still holds up after all these years in terms of suspense and a few good scares. And what a nice surprise to find that the Watcher was originally conceived as a extra dimensional beasty from the outer dark. HPL would have approved.


Keith West said...

I've only seen this one once, and that was in theaters. When I saw the topic of the post, I didn't recognize the stills you included. Now I understand why. It's not age. Or at least not completely age.

I remember really liking this one. Have get a copy and watch it again.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

I really liked it too and saw it a couple of times in the theater, Keith. It holds up pretty well.

The Wasp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Wasp said...

I actually saw it with the monster in the theater. When I saw it a few years ago I was disappointed with the column of light but pleased how well it held up.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

You must have been there during the initial release, Wasp. Didn't last long from what the production notes say.

The Wasp said...

My aunt took me and she had a taste for that sort of movie.

Paul R. McNamee said...

That is neat. So, is it an original cut or director's cut or something special, or have they changed the basic movie media to now be the original ending?

In a way, I can see Disney's decision. I can remember reading Stephen King's IT and discussing it with other readers. Most seemed very hung up on the ending - "IT was just a giant spider?" (Especially after the paltry t.v. mini-series came out.) No one understood the Lovecraftian element to IT. The smoke-hole scene where it comes from outside, it takes a spider form, only because it is the closest analogy that the kids can conceive - etc. I understood it because I had read HPL.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Paul, the DVD has the ending I saw in the theater, which was the second one. But the extras include two alternate endings, the original and a shorter version of the original which was also deemed too confusing.

Good point about IT. One of those things that plays better in a book, kind of like the Dust Witch from Something Wicked This Way Comes. She ended up using spiders too, come to think of it, in the movie version.