The Watcher in the Woods (1980)


An ordinary American family begin experiencing a series of unexplained events after moving into an isolated old cottage in the British countryside. Curious about the strange phenomena, the family’s eldest daughter (Lynn-Holly Johnson, Ice Castles) sets out to uncover the truth behind the paranormal activity.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I thought I saw something out there in the woods.”

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Disney Productions had difficulty expanding its fan base. For a while, the family-oriented studio couldn’t figure out how to create adult content without betraying its mission statement of producing wholesome entertainment. Though The Watcher in the Woods wasn’t Disney’s first adult-oriented movie, this thriller best exemplified the company’s temporary identity crisis.

Based on Florence Engel Randall’s Gothic 1976 novel A Watcher in the Woods, The Watcher in the Woods tried to please everyone, and it ended up pleasing no one. Parents complained that the movie scared their kids, and horror fans thought it was childish. I, on the other hand, think the movie’s real problem lies elsewhere. I thought the first hour was actually quite good, but this is a movie that loses its mojo at the very end.

British director John Hough, who gave us the creepy The Legend of Hell House (1973), would later say, “I consider it a failure myself in terms of the ending didn’t work in a manner that I set out to do.” The movie was released with three different endings. The first ending, which shows “the watcher,” was met with laughter at early previews. The sequence was trimmed, but early movie audiences were still unimpressed.

In a desperate attempt to save the movie, Disney decided to re-shoot the ending at considerable expense without the participation of director Hough. This is the official ending, and frankly, after watching the three endings — the Anchor Bay DVD has all three endings — I liked the original ending best (you can watch it here), warts and all. The theatrical ending falls flat, significantly undermining what came before it.

The abrupt and inept conclusion will leave you scratching your head, which is all the more sad because The Watcher in the Woods does have some good moments. There is a creepy mirror sequence that echoes the climax of Orson Welles’s classic noir The Lady from Shanghai (1948). The flashback sequences are very stylish. Alan Hume’s (For Your Eyes Only and Return of the Jedi) cinematography is adequately atmospheric.

I liked the cast too. Figure-skater-turned-actress Lynn-Holly Johnson is adorable as the story’s chronically noisy Nancy Drew-like heroine, who manages to solve the mystery. Kyle Richards (Halloween), who is now better known as a Reality TV star, plays Johnson’s kid sister. Sadly, Carroll Baker (Baby Doll) and David McCallum (TV’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) don’t have much to do as Richards and Johnson’s parents.

Top-billed Bette Davis plays the small, but key role of the tormented recluse, Mrs. Aylwood. Davis walks only inches from the edge of camp, but doesn’t quite fall into it. Critics accused her of overacting, but I sensed that Davis was trying to inject intensity into some dull patches, so I appreciated the fact that she didn’t try to phone it. In any event, I thought she was effective in an underwritten part. Also, with Scottish character actor Ian Bannen (The Flight of the Phoenix) as a wealthy villager.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Despite the fact that I now realize that The Watcher in the Woods doesn’t really work (the shoddy finale ruins a fine premise), I still liked it. The movie is an endearingly quaint spookfest tailor-made for young kids — think Nancy Drew (or Hardy Boys) meets R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps book series. Remade in 2017 as a Lifetime TV movie, starring Angelica Huston (Prizzi’s Honor) as Mrs. Aylwood. Color, 84 minutes, Rated G.

This is my contribution to the We Love Detectives Week Blogathon, hosted by Hamlette’s Soliloquy.

We Love Detectives Week Blogathon

17 responses to “The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

  1. Thank you, Eric, for your review on one of my favorite films. It may not have been the best that it could have been, even with a significantly interesting reveal and fitting closure for everyone. But it’s still one of my fondest memories from the kind of sci-fi and horror that I enjoyed in childhood.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I had to go back and double-check my film history list, and sure enough, I saw this when it came out in ’81…and remember NOTHING about it. Not even your review sparked any memories! I DO remember going to see it because of Lynn-Holly Johnson, so maybe I was concentrating on her the entire time, and missed everything else. And I agree…even at the time, I realized Disney was having trouble with its grown-up fare.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I had no idea this movie had three endings, I will have to watch the others because I actually love this movie! The best Halloween movie in my opinion, delightfully creepy. Thank you for writing about it.

    Liked by 2 people

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