Disney’s “Dark Phase” and The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Back around Halloween of 2021, I made a video talking about Something Wicked This Way Comes, the 1983 film adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury novel that was part of what is sometimes termed Disney’s “Dark Phase.” This period in the studio’s history has always fascinated me, as despite the financial failure most of these movies suffered upon release, nearly all of the films that came out during this era are fondly remembered by kids who saw them at a formidable age, and thus have developed strong cult followings.

For those unaware, prior to the 1970s, the film production arm of Disney was very strictly kid-focused; all movies released by the studio had to have a G rating, and be as innocent and inoffensive as possible. This strategy had worked very well for them in the past, but once the 70s commenced, things began to change. For one thing, both Walt and Roy Disney were dead by 1974, and there was a great deal of uncertainty among the board members as to the direction they wanted the studio to take.

For another thing, although the animated Disney movies that came out during the decade—Robin Hood and The Rescuers most notably—did just fine, the studio’s live-action fare was consistently disappointing at the box office. Some of the executives noted that the moviegoing culture was going through some radical transformations: Jaws came out in 1975, ushering in the era of the summer blockbuster, and the cultural phenomenon of Star Wars (which Disney initially turned down, much to their later chagrin) appeared just two years after that. A few higher-ups at Disney realized that they were losing out on a massive potential audience by not releasing films that appealed to teenagers and young adults, rather than just little kids.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t controversy among the ranks; some members of management were appalled at the very idea of making movies more targeted toward an older demographic, believing that it tarnished the wholesome brand reputation that Disney had spent so many decades building up. But in the end, the faction who wanted to radically stir the pot won the day, and thus began a weird, intriguing chapter in the chronicles of the House of Mouse.

Leading the charge was The Black Hole, released in late 1979, which was itself a milestone for Disney, as it was the first film released by the studio to have a PG rating. Although the movie was of course attempting to cash in on the science fiction craze initiated by the extraordinary success of Star Wars, the project had actually been in consideration since the mid-1970s.

I remember seeing The Black Hole in the theater as a kid, and I even had the vinyl soundtrack album, though the movie didn’t make a huge impression on my seven-year-old self (I was more a horror and ghost story person than a sci-fi person, even back then). That iconic shot of the massive fireball barrelling through the shaft toward our heroes terrified the shit out of me, however, and stuck with me for many years afterward. Rewatching the movie a few years back for a video review, I realized how insane it is that this was made my Disney; it’s VERY dark, essentially like a gothic haunted house story set in space, and even features some pretty horrific kills and images that were fairly shocking for the time period and the intended audience.

Though The Black Hole didn’t do as well financially as studio executives had hoped, they decided to press on in this new direction, and kept it going for several years. The 1980s saw the release of several scary or just plain bizarre live-action films that haunted the nightmares of youngsters everywhere: 1981’s Dragonslayer, 1982’s Tron, the aforementioned Something Wicked This Way Comes, and perhaps most traumatizingly, 1985’s Return to Oz (which I will definitely do a post and video about one of these days). Hell, even their animated movies shaded darker, with the release of 1984’s The Black Cauldron.

But one movie from Disney’s Dark Phase that continually gets brought up in discussions of ostensibly “kids” movies that frightened the piss out of my generation is the 1980 film The Watcher in the Woods. Though I don’t remember ever seeing it back in the day for some reason (a strange fact in itself, as something like this would have been right up my alley at eight years old, the age I was in 1980), I believe I did read the 1976 novel by Florence Engel Randall that it was based on, though I have forgotten almost everything about it. However, so many people in my age cohort have mentioned the movie that I felt like I had to finally sit down with it and see what all the fuss was about.

Directed by John Hough, who not only helmed the 1971 Hammer film Twins of Evil, but was also in the director’s chair for one of the best haunted house movies ever, 1973’s The Legend of Hell House (based on the excellent novel Hell House by Richard Matheson), The Watcher in the Woods had an extremely troubled production history, and that’s putting it mildly. Upon initially purchasing the rights to the source novel, the producer wanted the movie to have the same cultural impact and cachet as The Exorcist, but filtered through Disney sensibilities. The first screen treatment of Watcher—which differed somewhat from the book, particularly in its ending—was deemed far too dark, and the script was subsequently rewritten a number of times.

The movie was rushed into limited release in April of 1980 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Bette Davis’s acting career (as she played a significant role in the film), and although the plan was to roll out the film into more markets over the next couple of months, there was such a harsh negative reaction from both critics and audiences that Disney pulled the movie from theaters after only ten days, and then spent the next eighteen months cycling through endless rewrites and reshoots, even bringing in a different director: the uncredited Vincent McEveety, who mainly worked in TV, but had directed several previous live-action films for Disney, including The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and Herbie Goes Bananas.

When the retooled movie appeared in theaters again in early October of 1981, most critics were more charitable, though even to this day, reception of the film is decidedly mixed, and audiences were likewise lukewarm; the movie ended up only pulling in about $5 million domestically upon rerelease. The main issue most people seem to have is with the ending, which in the initial, universally reviled cut was deemed tonally out of left field and incomprehensible, and in later cuts was viewed as more coherent, but still kinda batshit crazy and perhaps clunkily explained. To be fair, the ending of the book was also rather WTF, so you can’t blame the multiple screenwriters’ attempts to translate said what-the-fuckery to the screen in a way that would make sense within the context of the story.

The narrative of The Watcher in the Woods follows the Curtises, an American family who have moved to England temporarily while the dad, Paul (played by David McCallum of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) is composing music for a big stage production. The book is set entirely in the United States, specifically in Massachusetts, the family’s last name is actually Carstairs, and the dad is a college professor and not a composer, but these small alterations don’t really make a big difference in terms of story. The manor house the family are renting, by the way, is played by St. Hubert’s Manor in Buckinghamshire, which was used in a couple of films from the 1960s and several episodes of the British TV series The Professionals, but is now an apartment building and community center. Additionally, one of the characters in the film lives in the grand house known as Ettington Park in Warwickshire, which is where Robert Wise’s classic 1963 film The Haunting was shot.

Anyway, the rest of the family consists of mom Helen (played by Carroll Baker, who was in Giant with James Dean and went on to star in a handful of Umberto Lenzi’s 70s giallo films), and two daughters, the younger Ellie (played by Kyle Richards, who was in Escape to Witch Mountain and Halloween; she later starred on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and recently reprised her role as Lindsey Wallace in both 2021’s Halloween Kills and 2022’s Halloween Ends) and the older Jan (played by figure skater Lynn-Holly Johnson, who won a Golden Globe for her performance as a blind skater in 1978’s Ice Castles and also starred in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only).

Bette Davis plays Mrs. Aylwood, the owner of the estate, who has moved into the smaller guest house on the property while renting out the larger house for a reasonable price to “the right people” (which sounds very similar to the setup of 1976’s Burnt Offerings, which also starred Bette Davis). The woman initially seems a tad creepy and standoffish, and in particular seems fixated on the teenaged Jan for some reason, but she deems the Curtis family worthy of staying in her house, so the move goes ahead as planned.

Right from the start, though, there seem to be mysterious doings afoot. Not only are there threatening POV shots peering at the daughters from amongst the foliage (which isn’t surprising, considering the movie is called The Watcher in the Woods), but while looking out her bedroom window into the surrounding trees one afternoon, Jan sees what appear to be strange flashes of blue light. As the story goes on, she also sees other anomalous lights, usually in the form of rings or triangles, and eventually she begins to see a blonde girl wearing a blindfold who looks eerily similar to her, appearing in mirrors and in the ruined local chapel.

Her younger sister Ellie is experiencing some weirdness too: after adopting a puppy from a nearby farm (and my stomach clenched when I first saw that puppy, thinking something terrible was going to happen to him, but turns out he’s fine, thank goodness), she goes into a kind of fugue, writing NERAK in the dust on the barn window and deciding to name the dog that; little does she realize that on the other side of the window is the clearly written name KAREN, which causes the woman who owns the farm, Mary (played by Frances Cuka) to freak out when she sees it. Ellie also starts saying weird shit in her sleep.

One day, after Nerak tears ass into the woods, Ellie runs in after him, prompting Jan to follow after them. She comes across a pond and sees another one of those bizarre blue rings, which causes her to fall in. There’s then a creepy scene where it looks as though Mrs. Aylwood is shoving Jan down into the water with a branch and trying to drown her, but after a harrowing few moments, it turns out that Jan was just caught on some limbs in the pond and Mrs. Aylwood was using the branch to pry her out and save her life.

Afterward, both Ellie and Jan recover at Mrs. Aylwood’s guest house, and she reveals that Karen was her daughter who disappeared many years ago. After Jan tells her about the apparition she’s been seeing, the old woman confirms that she’s seeing Karen, and tells Jan that on the night she went missing, her daughter was playing some sort of game with three of her friends in the old chapel, but while they were all in there, lightning struck the steeple and the place partially burned and collapsed. Everyone assumed Karen had been killed in the fire, but her body was never found.

Jan is now convinced that Karen’s ghost is trying to tell her something, or asking her for help, so Jan starts conducting her own investigation. The three friends who were there when Karen disappeared—the aforementioned Mary, a local hermit named Tom (played by Richard Pasco), and an aristocrat named John (played by Ian Bannen)—all still live in the area, though most of them are reluctant to talk about the night that Karen vanished, and John in particular is pretty hostile toward Jan’s questions. At this point in the story, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the three friends had maybe killed Karen, either accidentally or on purpose, and then hid the body to avoid getting in trouble—and indeed, that’s what I thought was going on, though I admit I was surprised that the movie revealed the mystery so early—but oh boy, is that REALLY not what was going on.

So Jan gets more visions and more weird messages from a seemingly entranced Ellie, and she figures out that whatever it is that she’s supposed to do to help Karen, it has to take place during the upcoming solar eclipse. After talking to the somewhat mentally challenged Tom, she discovers that the friends actually saw Karen disappear—like, into thin air—before the church’s bell fell onto the spot where she’d been standing. Jan also learns that the friends were doing some sort of initiation ceremony, hence the blindfold, but it doesn’t appear that it was anything nefarious; just some kids playing at having a secret society revolving around their friendship.

From the ambiguous clues coming to her from beyond, Jan deduces that she’s supposed to get John, Mary, and Tom to come to the chapel during the solar eclipse to recreate the initiation ceremony, with Jan herself standing in for Karen. She apparently believes that this will bring Karen back from wherever she disappeared to. The three friends are reluctant at first, but finally agree to go through with it, and as the whole scenario plays out, the apparently possessed Ellie comes into the chapel and lays out the exposition about what in the blue fuck is going on for the benefit of the audience.

See, what happened (I think) is that thirty years ago, there was some kind of alien or interdimensional being who was hanging out in this area for some reason, and because of the specific incantations or circumstances surrounding the original initiation ceremony (which also took place during a solar eclipse), this being was inexplicably switched with Karen. So the alien (or whatever) has been lurking around the periphery of the film, watching from the woods (title drop), while Karen has been trapped in the alien’s dimension outside of time and space.

So the three friends and Jan are doing the ceremony, and at first it looks like they’ve made a terrible mistake, because a bunch of windows break and supernatural wind is blowing from everywhere and it looks like Jan is getting sucked up into a brightly-lit vortex just like Karen presumably did. But then Jan’s kinda-boyfriend Mike (who is also Mary’s son and is played by Benedict Taylor) plows onto the scene and breaks up the “friendship circle” just as the eclipse is ending. The Watcher leaves Ellie’s body, looking like a shaft of blobular light, Jan and the three friends are fine, and Karen returns to our dimension, the same age as she was when she left.

According to Wikipedia, the film’s original ending would have had the Watcher actually appear as a demonic alien creature that looks pretty horrifying and badass, at least from the stills. The Watcher then snatches Jan and takes her to its world, sticking her in a prism, but then both she and Karen are freed, and Jan explains when they gets back that the alien needed her in order to free Karen, though I don’t know why they both got to leave, because to me it would make more sense if the two girls had to be exchanged. But whatever.

The ending that was shown during the disastrous initial release, the one that so affronted test audiences and critics, had the monster show up and take Jan away, but eliminated the whole “travel to alien dimension and prism imprisonment” thing (due to the effects not being finished), and only had Jan’s partial explanation of what was going on with the Watcher after she and Karen arrive back safe and sound in a beam of light, which most people found completely baffling. Which I totally get.

The ending that’s on the “official” release, the one I described a couple paragraphs back, still isn’t great, but at least made some sort of sense, at least in a “well, okay then…” kind of way. I still don’t really understand the mechanics of the girls being exchanged, though; I mean, I get that the alien was initially switched with Karen accidentally because of the specific parameters surrounding the eclipse and the ceremony, and I get that the same circumstances would have to be recreated in order for transfer between the dimensions to occur. But I was operating under the assumption that the Watcher wanted to return to its own dimension, because it was trapped here just like Karen was trapped over there. And if that was the case, then why did it appear as though the Watcher was trying to take Jan away, and was only stopped when Mike intervened and disrupted the ceremony? Was the Watcher going to keep Jan for some reason, and if so, why? As I mentioned, that scenario would have made more sense if the Watcher had first taken Karen on purpose, then wanted Jan to replace the girl. I mean, that still doesn’t make much sense either, but it’s a bit less bewildering than the explanation given here.

In the book, I’ll note, Karen originally disappeared into an interdimensional vortex in the woods, rather than from a chapel, and I don’t think the whole initiation ceremony was even a thing. The Watcher also wasn’t a monster, but appeared as an angelic little girl. I’ve also gathered, from reviews of the book, that the ending was very anticlimactic: apparently, Jan, Ellie, and Mrs. Aylwood do a ceremony type thing to open the interdimensional door back up, but then the three of them just wander off into the woods and their ultimate fate is never revealed. I guess the book ending the way it did is what made it so difficult to stick the landing on the film, and honestly I’d be intrigued to see what they would have done with the more demonic Watcher concept. It does seem as though this is one definite case where may people prefer the movie to the book; I saw a number of reviews saying that the film was much scarier, and while the ending of the movie was still odd and confusing, that at least it had an ending, unlike the book which just left shit hanging.

I actually enjoyed the film too, and it did have some eerie moments, so I can totally see why this would have frightened someone who saw it as a kid. It probably would have scared me as well. I’ll admit that I wasn’t a big fan of taking what was an effectively creepy little gothic mystery and taking a hard right turn into bizarro land at the end, but the book kinda did that too (although I felt like the book was trying to be Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, so it’s not all that weird in context), so you can’t really blame the screenwriters too much. I also didn’t love Lynn-Holly Johnson in the role of Jan, as her acting seemed a bit uneven; I remember her being okay in Ice Castles, so I’m not sure what was going on there.

Overall, though, this was a spooky enough experience, though I actually would have liked if more of it had been shot at night to make it scarier; and I wish the demonic Watcher creature had been utilized, though with a clearer explanation of what its goals and abilities were. I can’t say I have a nostalgic fondness for the film because I didn’t see it when I was a child, but I can totally see why a lot of people do, as it’s got some unsettling imagery that would have been very shocking for a Disney film of the time.

Incidentally, another adaptation was made for the Lifetime TV network in 2017, directed by Melissa Joan Hart and starring Anjelica Huston as Mrs. Aylwood. Though I haven’t seen it, it appears that it follows the plot of the 1980 movie (rather than the book) somewhat closely, but apparently has a more satisfying, coherent ending and better acting than the original, though most critics seem to have found it just mediocre overall. It also seems to have added a very weird back story for the Watcher, which is more on the monster end of things than the cheap-shaft-of-light end. I might watch it one of these days out of curiosity, but from what I could gather, it’s still not all that scary and not all that faithful to the source novel.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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