Day 26- 31 Days of Halloween- The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Day 26- 31 Days of Halloween- The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Disney Pictures once made a horror film. Really! In the early 80’s they decided to capitalise on the horror boom and make a scary film for young adults.

The Watcher in the Woods was made in 1980. It holds the honour of being possibly the most rented VHS tape of yours truly when he was a young boy (Supergirl was a close second). I saw the film when I was 9 and loved it from the first time I saw it.

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The film concerns a family renting a large house in the country which is suspiciously being let out at a very low price for some reason (always a red flag in a horror film. If this ever happened to me I’m pretty sure I’d ask about whether an Indian burial ground was beneath the premises in question). Theres one catch though- the rather sinister old woman who owns the property will be living in a room in the huge rambling mansion.

Pretty soon strange, bizarre things start to happen. Could there be something which explains this? Is there something that happened in the past that is the cause of these occurrences? Of course there is. This is a horror film, albeit one made by Disney Inc.

I watched the film again recently for the first time in years and I’m glad to say that the dark magic the movie held for me as a child hasn’t dissipated. There is something about the disquieting goings-on in the movie that feel like ingredients of a classic, quintessentially English and utterly unsettling ghost yarn. Everything points to a girl called Karen and what has happened to her.

Her ghostly omnipotent presence is felt in numerous different ways such as the youngest daughter, Ellen (played by Kyle Richards from Halloween) going into a trance and writing Karen’s name backwards on a dirty barn window (The Watcher in the Woods came out before The Shining and so it’s this film that owns the honour of giving audiences the first glimpse of an unnerving sequence involving a child writing something disturbing backwards). She then gets a new puppy who she calls Nerak (the name she wrote earlier and Karen’s name backwards).

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Redrum my arse

The older daughter Jan also has her share of visitations from Karen in other disturbing ways. When a window breaks she can suddenly see her in the broken glass wearing white, blindfolded and crying for help. The same thing happens when a mirror is broken. She also sees Karen in a hall of mirrors at her local funfair. This imagery suggests that Karen is trapped somehow between dimensions, as if broken glass and mirrors can see beyond the rational world and into the beyond.

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Broken mirrors/windows are passageways to other worlds

The film also suggests that both Jan and Ellen possess some kind of ESP or second sight which is triggered in different situations. In a huge plot reveal, the elderly owner of the property, Mrs Aylwood (played by the very Ms Bette Davis, no less!) also picks up on the fact that Jan reminds her of her daughter Karen who, it is revealed, disappeared decades before in mysterious circumstances. Suddenly Jan knows who the girl is in the visions.

But the film also mines into a fear of that particular time that was just starting to gain national attention. That was of the existence of prowlers and perverts who could harm children and young teenagers in a number of different ways. One of the characters in the film is called Tom Colley and it’s suggested at one point that he could be the watcher in the woods that the film’s title makes reference to. Why is he shown to be watching the two young girls so intently and then ducking out of view so that he isn’t noticed? In fact, his appearance and early scenes in the film reminded me of an episode of the children’s drama Grange Hill that was brave enough to cover the issue to alert kids and parents like of this phenomenon.

Another facet of the story that greatly adds to the film is the storyline as to how Karen went missing. During an eclipse four children (one of whom was Karen) practised an old ritual they had heard about which was something akin to an occult ceremonial rite in which they kinked arms around Karen in a local church not knowing that this childish excursion into the paranormal would have disastrous consequences for her. She is now trapped in a supernatural netherworld or limbo and appears to the newest child occupants of her old house (Jan and Ellen) pleading to be freed. This idea of an ancient ritual also suggests an old English ghost story in much the same way the events and imagery used within The Wicker Man do.

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A detail from the UK cinema poster of the church ceremonial ritual

But whilst I watched this as a child and thoroughly enjoyed the film, I wasn’t to know of the troubled production and reception of the film and how Disney responded to this. The screenplay that was originally written for the film was by the genius Brian Clements who has written many classic British dramas including the brilliant Thriller series. But his version of the screenplay was based too closely to the source novel A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall that was way more nuanced that the version of the film that I eventually rented on video. The original novel went to great pains to explain what the actual watcher was and why it was haunting the environs of the mansion and it’s adjacent woods. Within the novel the watcher is described as-

”a female alien humanoid-child. She was described to have a pointy chin, an upturned nose and wore a long flowing robe. Fifty years before, her parents had taken her to a ceremonial coming-of-age ritual on their home planet in which she was to view earth, but Karen, during her walk, was too near the portal when it opened and the two changed places. She is here as an observer and communicates with her race through telepathy.”

Whilst this would have been great to read off the page of a novel it would have been hard to depict in a motion picture. It would have required deft adaptation in terms of screenplay and a massive increase in budget and effects to successfully convey. But the filmmakers tried their best to depict this in the film’s original version. How was it received? Critics and audiences alike doubled up with laughter when the watcher was revealed at the end of the film.

This obviously didn’t sit well with Disney. They pulled the original version of the film from theaters after just 11 days of it playing and replaced it with a re-release of Mary Poppins (!) instead. The film’s conclusion was then rewritten (a crew member said that over 150 different endings were penned!) before a suitable ending was agreed upon and reshot, but not using the original director John Hough but the uncredited Vincent McEveety instead. This new final scene is the ending that exists today and is a lot more simplistic and in keeping with the rest of the film. There is no big reveal and it works so much better for that reason. Sometimes in a horror film, mystery is better than a flawed reveal resplendent with a complicated backstory ten minutes before the movie is due to end. However, this original ending does exist and can still be seen. The amended version of the Watcher in the Woods was released the following year in 1981.

The Watcher in the Woods is a peach of a movie. Classic haunted house/haunted surroundings tropes are handled by a great director and with an all-star cast. The events of the film never feel cliched or hackneyed. Grand Dame Bette Davis gives a truly great performance. Watch the scene where she meets Jan for the first time and utters the following in inimitable Bette Davis fashion- ‘Are you sensitive? Do you sense things?!’ all in close up. It chills to the marrow whilst making you think ‘They don’t make actresses like that anymore!’. The scenes of her with Kyle Richards in which we see that she’s not so sinister after all are beautiful to behold.

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‘Are you sensitive? Do you sense things?!’

In fact, Ms Davis insisted that she could play the scenes of her character as a younger woman in the film. However this didn’t work after make-up tests were carried out and she just didn’t look 30 years younger. When the director said that she just didn’t look convincing enough Bette looked in the mirror and quipped ‘You’re Goddamned right!’ Another actress was employed to depict the character three decades before.

There was much derision of the choice of Lynn Holly Johnson for the part of Jan as she was more famous at that time for her ice-skating endeavours than for acting. But she brings a dewy-eyed innocence to the role as the young teen who is still very innocent and naive, even a little aloof. She was perfect for the role. Diane Lane was meant to have been cast in the part as was reported in The Hollywood Reported when the film was announced but Lynn was cast instead.

I honestly think The Watcher in the Woods is a classic horror film. A brave move for Disney that paid off, even if it took a rethink and a reshoot to fully realise it’s potential. If only they had done this before it’s release a few red faces at Disney could have been spared.

The Watcher in the Woods can be seen here.

5 out of 5 stars

 

Day 1- 31 Days of Halloween- The Nanny (1965)

Day 1- 31 Days of Halloween- The Nanny (1965)

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What a cracking film to start my 31 Days of Halloween with.

This is a British film which stars Bette Davis as a nanny for a family living in London in which a young boy has been sent away for supposedly killing his sister. The boy is due to be released after two years and return to his family home and under Ms Davis’ supervision.

The boy vehemently protests his innocence and insists that instead it was the nanny who committed the terrible deed. Is he right? Or is the nanny indeed guilty?

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Theres already the almost unspeakable taboo of a child killing another child within this film which gives the film a grittiness right from the get go. The household in question is steeped in gothic tension even though it is in fact light and airy. No Baby Jane mansion here.

Theres also the stifling formality of English life at this time. There are so many manners and formalities at play that are overwhelmingly suffocating and claustrophobic.

Within the film there is also a delicious generation gap which underlines this and presents a tangible ‘Old vs new’ scenario. The boy in question, Joey forges a friendship with a 14 year old girl who lives in the same building. She dresses like a hip 60s girl, all white lipstick and black eyeliner. When we see within her bedroom Joey gazes up at a Beatles mobile she has hanging from the ceiling and at one point we see her reclining on her bed reading a copy of the girls magazine Jackie which has a pin up of Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones on its back cover.

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Beautifully acted (especially Ms Davis of course, whose character has a pair of the ugliest eyebrows ever captured on film) and elegantly directed, this is one of Hammer’s finest films.

Of course this would only have been made with Ms Davis if Hollywood wasn’t casting the very best stars of yesteryear anymore. Every cloud has a silver lining. What was Hollywood’s loss was very much Hammer’s gain.

31 Days of Halloween 2017

31 Days of Halloween 2017

FridayQuad

Every day in October I will be reviewing a different horror film.

Some of the criteria I’ve used for the choice of films are

– a film from each decade from the 1920s onwards

– films from a number of different countries

– a Friday the 13th film as within October this year the 13th falls on a Friday!!! (mind blown)

The rest of my choices were films that I had wanted to see for ages but hadn’t gotten around to or were films that I have seen before but was dying to revisit (three of the films have ratings already by myself. These are some of the films that will be revisited and be reviewed again to see if my opinion has changed).

When I had my list of films they were then fed into an online randomiser so that they could be mixed up. With my randomised list I made one change- I made sure that the film watched on the 13th of October was the Friday the 13th movie. But thats the only change.

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Here are the films-

Day 1- The Nanny (1965)

Day 2- Battle Royale (2000)

Day 3- The Exorcist (1973)

Day 4- Piranha (1978)

Day 5- Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) and Tales From The Unexpected episode ‘Flypaper’ (1980)

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Day 6- The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

Day 7- The Fog (1980)

Day 8- Eyes Without A Face (1960)

Day 9- Phantasm (1979)

Day 10- Nosferatu (1922)

 

Nosferatu

Day 11- Blood Beach (1980)

Day 12- The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Day 13- Friday the 13th Part 4- The Final Chapter (1984)

Day 14- M (1931)

Day 15- Freaks (1932)

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Day 16- The Tingler (1959)

Day 17- Drive-in Massacre (1976)

Day 18- Kill Baby, Kill (1966)

Day 19- Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1978)

Day 20- Ginger Snaps (2000)

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Day 21- The Beast With Five Fingers (1946)

Day 22- The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

Day 23- Ringu (1998)

Day 24- Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

Day 25- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

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Day 26- Les Diaboliques (1955)

Day 27- The Sadist (1963)

Day 28- The Lift (1983)

Day 29- Prom Night (1980)

Day 30- It Follows (2014)

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Day 31- Seytan (1974)

Please join me on this horrifying journey 🙂

The Watcher in the Woods – Day 10 – 31 Days of Halloween

The Watcher in the Woods – Day 10 – 31 Days of Halloween

I remember watching this as a kid on VHS in the 80s and loving it.

Now as a gay horror fan whos all grown up watching the film feels different.
Firstly, its because the great gay icon Bette Davis is in it. Safe in this knowledge I know that this isn’t just any run of the mill performance in a horror film. Ms Davis makes every scene her own, reviting each line her own way and with her own meter. Its as if shes too big for the film. Every scene shes in is special.

The divine Ms Davis

Secondly, I now watch this knowing its a very rare gem- a Disney horror film. And whats really shockkng is that this is very scary indeed! And judging by the film’s alternate endings and the idea for the original opening scene (as yet, unavailable to watch) the film was intended to be even darker. I think Disney must have not wanted to completely sully their family friendly name with an out and out scarefest.

The monster from the alternate endings that was cut from the film

Atmospheric, haunting and intelligent. This is a must see. Just don’t underestimate its power. 4 out of 5