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During the ’80s, Disney was trying to make their films more adult/more scary/more non-Disney, so to speak. We’ve seen this already in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Now we’re gonna see it again in this film entitled The Watcher in the Woods. Based on a novel, this film is considered a cult classic to many and after having seen it, count me in with that group. Will you be part of that group too? Let’s take a look!
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The film opens up to a family traveling with a travel agent by car. They’re headed to an old English manor with the hopes of leasing it from its owner who occupies a small cottage next to it. The family consists of a mother and father, Helen and Paul Curtis, played by Carroll Baker and David McCallum respectively, and two daughters. The younger daughter is named Ellie and she’s about 7-8 years old and is played by Kyle Richards.
The elder daughter, Jan, is about 15 years old and is played by Lynn-Holly Johnson. She serves as the main protagonist of the film.
When they arrive at the manor to check it out, they notice that it’s a typical spacious English manor bordering some woods. But, Jan senses something not quite right with the situation. She feels a presence in the woods, feels that something is not quite right with the manor, and is a bit ambivalent regarding the owner of the manor, Mrs. Aylwood, played by Bette Davis.
Mrs. Aylwood is an old widow and a bit of an eccentric. She’s at first hesitant to lease the manor to this family, but after seeing Jan, she feels that this family is the right one for the manor and leases it to them. Almost as soon as they move in, Jan begins to notice even stranger things. For example, she sees the image of a blindfolded blond girl while looking in a mirror.
Another time, she hears her young sister, Ellie, start murmuring strange sentences in her sleep. We even see Mrs. Aylwood stare into the woods and talk to it as if she’s speaking to someone or something that resides therein. Creepy!
The next day, the Curtis family goes to the local farm to buy groceries and get a puppy for Ellie. But, when everyone’s not paying attention, Ellie seems to go into a daze and starts drawing the name, “Nerak” in a window of the barn.
After she’s out of her daze, Jan and Ellie are both bewildered by what this means. Even the woman who owns the farm, Mrs. Fleming, played by Frances Cuka, is shocked at this and appears uneasy about the whole thing. You see, Ellie traced the word “Nerak” backwards on the inside of the window whilst Mrs. Fleming who was outside saw it as “Karen”. And something about the name “Karen” seemed to frighten her.
If that wasn’t creepy enough, later on, Ellie and Nerak go playing deep in the woods and Jen heads in to find them. While in there, she accidentally slips and falls into a brook while getting trapped underneath some fallen branches. Luckily, Mrs. Aylwood arrives in time and starts pushing Jan down with a big stick.
Ok, that didn’t happen! You see, Mrs. Aylwood HAD to push down so that Jan could get free from the branches. After she saves Jan, she takes her (along with Ellie) back to her cottage to recuperate. While there, Jan thanks Mrs. Aylwood and tells her about the goings-on that have been happening and the feelings that she’s been experiencing. She even asks Mrs. Aylwood about “Karen”. This causes Mrs. Aylwood to tell her story.
You see, decades ago, Mrs. Aylwood lost her teenage daughter, Karen. She went to a nearby chapel one night with three other teens for some sort of a game when the chapel caught on fire after being struck by lightning. The three other teens managed to escape, whilst Karen (who was blindfolded for the purposes of this “game”) didn’t. No trace was found of her and up to this day, Mrs. Aylwood believes that Karen is still out there somewhere. Why does she believe this? Well, she hears things in the wind and senses things just like Jan has been.
When Jan and Ellie go back home and tell their parents about this, their parents brush it off as the idiocy of the elderly.
As more strange occurrences seem to happen, Jan gets more and more determined to solve the mystery of Karen Aylwood. She decides to learn all she can about what happened from the three teens who were there at the chapel with Karen on that fateful night. The trio of teens (who are now adults) consists of Mrs. Fleming, which explains why she was afraid of seeing the name “Karen” in the window, a hermit named Tom Colley, played by Richard Pasco,
and the leader of the group named John Keller, played by Ian Bannen.
All of them are hesitant to talk about it and want to forget that fateful night. After constant prying, Jan learns the truth about what happened that night: John Keller and the other two had a secret group and wanted to initiate Karen into it. They blindfolded her as part of the ceremony where they linked hands around her and told her to repeat some words that John was saying and not to move no matter what. The ceremony was cut short when the chapel caught on fire. The three teens rushed out in time, but Karen just vanished…simply disappeared into thin air. And all this happened on the night of an eclipse.
Coincidentally, another eclipse is soon to occur and it gives Jan an idea. If they can recreate the initiation ceremony by using Jan as the blindfolded girl and actually complete it, maybe all questions will be answered. The trio hesitantly agrees to this and they all gather in the chapel to perform the ceremony again.
What happens next depends on what version of the movie you’re watching. You see, one reason that this movie is famous for is the fact that it went through a lot of editing. The film was originally released in 1980, but was quickly pulled out of the theaters, edited, and then re-released in 1981 with a different ending. This 1981 ending is the default ending that can be found on copies of the movie. Besides the 1980 and 1981 ending, there is also another longer alternate ending which can be found as a bonus feature on some DVDs.
The standard 1981 ending is that while the ceremony is going on, Ellie walks in, but something is askew. The fact of the matter is she’s possessed by an otherworldly being. Ellie (as the being) then talks to the trio and Jan and tells them what’s going on.
Apparently, when they were doing this initiation all those years ago, something went wrong and Karen was transported from this world into the dimension of the otherworldly being. Since then, Karen’s been trapped in that dimension and the otherworldly being has been on Earth the whole time taking refuge in the woods.
Now that the initiation ceremony is being performed again in its entirety, the process can reverse and switch the places of Karen and the otherworldly being. And after some dramatic light flashes and sound effects, that’s exactly what happens! The otherworldly being seems to be transported back from whence it came, Ellie is no longer possessed, and Karen (who’s still 15 years old) is back in her world and reunited with her mother.
In the original 1980 ending, the otherworldly being doesn’t possess Ellie. Rather, you actually SEE this otherworldly being, this titular Watcher in the Woods!
This creature gets energy from the initiation ceremony and uses that energy to grab hold of Jan and disappear only to have Jan reappear with Karen safe and sound. I actually like this ending the best!
In the extended ending, you see that the creature has transported Jan to its dimension where Karen has been all this time.
After this, Jan and Karen are sent back to their world and all’s well.
And that was The Watcher in the Woods. Let me just say that this is probably the scariest Disney movie I’ve ever seen! Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that this is a truly hardcore horror film, but of all the “scary” Disney films, this is the one that I find to be filled with the most scares, spooks, and frights!
The atmosphere is just marinated in creepiness and a lot of moving camera shots and different angles add to the overall macabre feeling. This along with the acting (which is pretty good, for the most part) makes you so invested in the film that you can forgive the shoddy plot and unanswered questions. (Like where the heck did this otherworldly being come from exactly? How did it change places with Karen “accidentally”? Why is the manor “haunted” when all the mystery lies in the chapel? Etc.)
If you’re looking for an excellent horror movie, this isn’t what you need. But if you’re a Disney fan looking for a good scare and something that’ll keep you interested, I highly recommend this one.
(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)
So, the final score for this film is 27/35 = 77.14% (C+) !