The Watcher in the Woods
- Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood
- Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan Curtis
- Kyle Richards as Ellie Curtis
- Carroll Baker as Helen Curtis
- David McCallum as Paul Curtis
- Ian Bannen as John Keller
- Richard Pasco as Tom Colley
- Frances Cuka as Mary Fleming
- Benedict Taylor as Mike Fleming
The Watcher in the Woods was Disney’s attempt to reach a slightly older audience with a spooky tale. Although critics may have sniffed at it, it has since become a cult film and one that I fondly recall enjoying as a child. Sure, there may be some parts that aren’t as effective as they once where, but I was pleasantly surprised that the film holds up rather well and is creepy, atmospheric viewing as Halloween approaches.
Paul Curtis, his wife Helen and there two daughters Jan and Ellie are an American family that move into a country house in England. The property is owned by the old Mrs. Aylwood who decides them stay as she is very particular on who lives there and who lives in a cottage on the grounds. Part of the reason that the old woman lets the family move in is because Jan bears a striking resemblance to someone important from her past. Soon after moving in, Jan and her sister Ellie begin experiencing strange events around them: Jan suddenly can’t see herself in a mirror and instead sees the figure of a girl begging for help while blindfolded, Ellie goes into various trance like states that talk of a past event, a blue light appears from the woods and they both have the feeling that something eerie is afoot in the surrounding area, most notably the large woods. Mrs. Aylwood, after helping Jan when she falls into a pond and nearly drowns, begins to explain what may be behind the peculiar events that have plagued the girls. She had a daughter named Karen who she adored, but who mysteriously vanished while playing a game in a church with three of her friends located in the woods thirty years earlier. Jan begins to dig deeper into the mysterious disappearance and how it relates to the spectre haunting her, though the kids who were playing with Karen who have now grown up are reluctant to talk about what happened. With the help of nice local boy Mike, she starts to uncover what transpired all those years ago and how it haunts the present.
I must say that while Watcher in the Woods is aimed at young adults rather than grown ups, it does have its share of scares that will make you jump. Director John Hough utilities the setting of the woods and the forming mystery very effectively, peppering the movie with suspense and eeriness. A roving camera forming point of view shots, obscured by branches and foliage sends shivers down the spine as strange phenomena unfolds. The overall atmosphere lingers with strange and unnatural ambience that is hard to shake due to the ghostly visuals in the woods. The striking set of the woods brings uneasiness to the film and the dark, cavernous tress and mist is wholly appropriate. Now I must say that there are times when the movie becomes a bit dull, has some corny dialogue and needs an injection of pace, but mostly it keeps things ticking over. A marvellously sinister score, encompassing the pretty sound of a music box with unusual drums and brass makes many scenes in The Watcher in the Woods with a whole lot of mystery and darkness. The movie is not really frightening in a graphic way or really horrifying; its more of a creepy, slowly unwinding story with a ghostly sense of menace that makes it ideal for youngsters to see it but adults to enjoy too.
A generally well-chosen cast play their roles in decent fashion, though some get lost in the mix of it all and hardly have anything to really contribute. Bette Davis is on scene-stealing form as Mrs. Aylwood, imbuing her with a strangeness, sadness and weariness that really suit the character whose daughter’s disappearance forms the main story of the piece. Lynn-Holly Johnson is not the best actress out there, but she’s very good at displaying Jan’s fear and curiosity as the mystery targets her and she’s forced to get to the bottom of it. Young Kyle Richards is well-cast as the adventurous Ellie, who also finds herself plagued by strange visions and trance like channeling. Carroll Baker and David McCallum are really wasted in this film and they don’t bring much to it because their characters are so poorly written. More successful in terms of the adult actors are Ian Bannen, Richard Pasco and Frances Cuka as the grown ups whose childhood game ended in darkness and how these events have haunted them ever since. Benedict Taylor is thoroughly bland as a possible love interest for Jan that never really goes anywhere.
Some of it may be dated and weak, but overall The Watcher in the Woods is still an eerily effective movie of atmosphere and chills.