(1980) Directed by John Hough; Written by Brian Clemens, Rosemary Anne Sisson and Harry Spalding; Based on the novel by Florence Engel Randall; Starring: Bette Davis, David McCallum, Carroll Baker, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards and Benedict Taylor; Available on DVD
“Sometimes there seems to be something out there. Sometimes I hear someone whispering in the wind.” – Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis)
A heart-felt “thanks” goes out to Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for inviting me to participate in The Bette Davis Blogathon, celebrating one of America’s most inimitable actresses. Today’s selection, The Watcher in the Woods, is one of the more obscure Disney films, as well one of the lesser-known roles in Ms. Davis’ illustrious career.*
* Fun fact: The Watcher in the Woods marked a milestone for Davis. During the film’s 1980 premiere it was touted as her 85th feature and 50th anniversary in movies (source: AFI website: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=56715)
The Watcher in the Woods, based on Florence Engel Randall’s novel, was originally planned as a television movie, until Disney saw its potential as a feature film. Filmed in 1979, it experienced a troubled release history. After the 1980 premiere was poorly received, portions were re-shot, along with the ending (more on this later), and the movie was re-released in 1981. The Watcher in the Woods is best described as a supernatural mystery. The production has a gothic quality, which should be no surprise given the director John Hough, who helmed the underrated Hammer production Twins of Evil (1971), the Richard Matheson-penned The Legend of Hell House (1973), and the supernatural Disney family thrillers Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return from Witch Mountain (1978). Alan Hume’s atmospheric cinematography contributes to the gothic tone, casting the eponymous woods in shadow and ethereal light.
An American family Paul and Helen Curtis (David McCallum and Carroll Baker), along with their two daughters Jan and Ellie (Lynn-Holly Johnson and Kyle Richards), rent a secluded old house in the English countryside from its reclusive owner, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). Mrs. Aylwood takes an immediate shine to the elder girl, Jan, who has a passing resemblance to her long-lost teenage daughter Karen. Jan and Ellie possess a psychic link to the woods, and whatever strange phenomena may be linked to Karen’s disappearance nearly 30 years before. Meanwhile, some unseen presence is observing their movements.
Davis has a small, but vital role as the eccentric Mrs. Aylwood. She clings fiercely to the past, holding on to the belief that Karen is still out there, somewhere. She seems to perceive that Jan and Ellie might hold the key to Karen’s whereabouts. Davis lends gravitas to her character, setting the tone for the film, with her enduring grief over the loss of her daughter and fear of forces beyond her comprehension. Her underlying sadness and vulnerability brings much to an underwritten role, and serves as a sensitive departure from some of the domineering matriarchs that Davis tended to play in her later years.
Jan experiences strange visions of the missing girl, while her sister has premonitions that prove to be eerily accurate.* Poor Jan, however, doesn’t stand much of a chance, given her feeble support system. Outside of her sister and Mrs. Aylwood, no one wants to believe her. Her mother occupies the time-honored stereotypical role of the disbelieving parent, spouting lines such as, “I won’t have her filling your head with those far-fetched fantasies.”** Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, with one odd occurrence after another, Helen remains convinced it’s all in Jan’s head. Jan’s handsome (and rather bland) boyfriend Mike (Benedict Taylor), isn’t much better, believing she’s being absurd when she voices her suspicions about the strange events. It’s an exercise in frustration as she attempts to break the conspiracy of silence between three middle-aged town residents who participated in a secret initiation ceremony, which involved Karen.
* Too bad their psychic powers are ill-defined and inconsistent. We’re never sure if Jan and Ellie always had these abilities, or if the unseen “watcher” is influencing them.
** An odd choice of words from Helen, as an author of children’s books.
Frances Cuka and Ian Bannen are fine in their limited, one-note roles as two of the co-conspirators, but character actor Richard Pasco (a veteran of several Hammer films) steals the show as the third friend, Tom Colley. He’s a strange hermit who lives in a cottage on the edge of the woods, and spends his days rescuing animals from traps (“Awful things, traps. They hurt.”). Of all the friends who witnessed Karen’s last moments before her disappearance, he’s the only one who values compassion over saving his own neck.
Alas, the mystery itself is better than efforts to explain its meaning. (SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) After the original ending was abandoned, following bad reviews and tepid screening audience reactions, the filmmakers hastily cobbled together a new conclusion,* which opted for a more prosaic, pseudo-magical explanation, instead of a more ambitious sci-fi twist. The Disney DVD provides a tantalizing glimpse into the original version, with two alternate endings that uncover what was watching from the woods, and where Karen spent the past three decades. Both endings cover similar ground, but I tend to favor the shorter of the two, which provides a nice balance between showing just enough, and permitting our minds to fill in the blanks. The longer alternate ending briefly whisks us away to an alien world, rendered with underwhelming special effects (which recall, but fail to reach the heights of similar, more impressive scenes in Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth).
* In the alternate endings, the role of Karen was credited to Katherine Levy, but in the theatrical release, the actress was not credited. Although, there’s no mention of a second actress, a casual comparison between Karen in the flashback sequences and the theatrical conclusion seems to suggest a different actor was cast for Karen in the ending that was re-shot.
Image from Deleted Scene
As it stands, The Watcher in the Woods is moderately entertaining, but falls short of the classic it could have been. It features some terrific cast members, strong performances by Davis and Pasco, and a nice gothic atmosphere, but the rest of the film doesn’t quite hold up. It’s frustrating to witness the potential for something really special, instead of a curiosity in the Disney library and a footnote in Ms. Davis’ career.