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 24- 31 Days of Halloween- Psychic Killer (1974)

Day 24- 31 Days of Halloween- Psychic Killer (1974)

Arnold Masters has several axes to grind. Hes in prison for a crime he didn’t commit (his mother who had a tumour who due to be operated on but wasn’t. The doctor who was due to undertake the procedure was then found dead in his office by Arnold who was then framed for his murder).

He tells his backstory to a fellow prisoner who confides his story to Arnold in return. His daughter was turned into a prostitute by a pimp. He says to him that he will seek revenge on this man by carving his name into his chest and slitting his throat. Lo and behold, sometime later he tells Arnold that hes done it and without leaving his prison cell. Before Arnold can ask him how, his confident scales the prison fence and jumps from the very high prison wall killing himself. It is later confirmed in the paper that the pimp indeed was murdered in the way the prisoner stipulated.

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Arnold then inherits his friends belongings one of which was an amulet. This allows the owner to leave their body and travel psychically anywhere they want. Perfect for seeking revenge against your perceived enemies and enacting revenge.

Arnold is then found to be innocent and released. Those who failed his mother are then one by one found dead in very strange circumstances that defy logic and reason.

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The original UK quad poster. What a double-bill!

I remember seeing the trailer for this film on almost VIPCO video back in the 80’s. The trailer was extremely evocative and I’m glad to say that now that I’ve seen the film it is every bit as brilliant as it’s trailer.

Early/mid 1970’s America is captured beautifully and the film has it’s own very eccentric character. Check out the murders and how unorthodox they are- whether they involve a shower, a new building’s cornerstone or a bacon slicer and mincing machine! The sequence involving the nurse before she steps into the shower from Hell could have been lifted from one of the great Russ Meyers’ movies.

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Matron!

This is a great concept for a horror movie- someone spiritually leaving their body to avenge their grievances through the power of their minds. Transcendental meditation and other New Age concepts were very fashionable in the 70’s and so it’s great that this should mind it’s way into an exploitation movie made for 42nd Street and the Drive-Ins.

And if you need any other recommendation for seeing this I’ll just say this. It stars Neville Brand!!!Now if that isn’t enough of an incentive then I don’t know what is.

4/5 out of 5 stars

Day 23- 31 Days of Halloween- Duel (1971)

Day 23- 31 Days of Halloween- Duel (1971)

This Steven Spielberg directed movie made for TV and adapted from Richard Matheson’s short story still packs a punch.

David Mann is a travelling businessman venturing to an appointment across California but is slowed down considerably by an ominous truck that at first inconveniences him until things suddenly take a much darker tone.

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This film could be seen to represent masculinity. David could be seen to represent the modern man- hen-pecked, pussy-whipped and a million miles from his caveman Id origins. Notice David meekly calling his wife to try and patch things up as he had earlier had an argument with her. They had been at a party when another man started coming onto her and acting inappropriately. He voices the opinion that she was sore because he didn’t choose to square up to the suitor and knock his lights out. He voices the opinion that she thinks he hadn’t fulfilled his traditionally masculine role.

Also, when David goes to the garage he asks the attendant to ‘Fill her up’ with the attendant replying ‘You’re the boss.’ To which David responds ‘Not in my house I’m not!’

David’s continued oneupmanship with the truck represents a display of masculine superiority. Whos the bigger man, who has the bigger penis?

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The clues to the driver of the truck point towards a more rugged, masculine opponent who is blue collar, possibly from Down South (he wears jeans and cowboy boots for his line of work as opposed to David’s white collar suit and polished shoes). 

The truck is the Return of the Repressed in the guise of David’s more base level, undomesticated masculinity. It’s always present, it’s unescapable and is waiting to confront him when he thinks he’s shaken it off.

Witness the scene in which David stops to use the payphone at the garage owned by the woman who keeps exhibits of rattlesnakes, tarantulas and lizards. Whilst the truck smashes the cages of these creatures and inadvertently sets them free whilst trying to run David over, it frees these creatures from their cages and places them where they would have been before- in the wild. This is also symbolic. The truck’s very deeds are also freeing David’s more primal masculine survival instincts which it thinks should be just as free but have become more deeply embedded and seemingly eradicated due to 70’s society with it’s emphasis on Women’s Liberation and, thus, the emasculation of men. The fact that the owner of the caged animals exhibit is female is also telling.

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But, whilst the truck might possess and exhibit brute force and traditional ‘Alpha Male’ qualities, it’s David’s qualities of cunning and intellect that save him. He utilises attributes that are above the level of the truck’s Id and he uses them advantageously.

Notice also the dinosaur roar the truck makes as it faces it’s demise. This could be seen as symbolic of this outdated, destructive and potentially dangerous version of untamed and unrefined masculinity. This dinosaur roar was also referenced in Spielberg’s later masterpiece, Jaws. He even made the roar louder when it was released in a new print on Blu ray a few years ago.

This really is a stunning piece of work. Acted to perfection, beautifully framed and paced amazingly. This may have been made for American TV but it proved so successful that it was expanded and released theatrically in the UK the year after.

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The UK cinema poster

A special mention to the gorgeous cinematography. The American landscape has never looked so beautiful along with the quintessentially American institutions such as it’s diners and random sideshow attractions such as the garage owner’s snakes and spiders sideshow. A gorgeous love -letter to Americana and a few examples of what makes this country so amazing.

Spielberg went on to make another horror themed TV movie, Something Evil the following year. This is also a resounding success but unfortunately never released on home media.

4/5 out of 5 stars

Day 22- 31 Days of Halloween- Look What’s Happened To Rosemary’s Baby (1976)

Day 22- 31 Days of Halloween- Look What’s Happened To Rosemary’s Baby (1976)

It’s extremely brave to decide to make a sequel to a beloved horror classic. It can almost feel like some kind of suicide mission as critics and the general public alike will trot out the hackneyed old cliche of ‘It’s not as good as the first film!’ as if this is an extremely original and perceptive line of criticism to extol.

If you do decide to make said sequel there are several routes you can take when doing this. You can either try to recreate the tone and feel of the original (Halloween 2 is an example of this and a very good sequel). You can try to make a film that has a tone and atmosphere all of it’s own whilst setting the action years ahead of the events of the original film (for example, Psycho 2 is an excellent film). Then you can make a film that is completely out there and batshit crazy. The ‘made for TV sequel’ to Rosemary’s Baby, the masterpiece made by Roman Polanski in 1968, goes down this route. It’s not often that whilst I watch a film I have a smile permanently etched onto my face at the sheer insanity I’m watching on the screen and that after the film has ended I have to take a few moments to reacclimatise myself to everyday life again whilst thinking ‘What the fuck was that?!’ And I mean that in the best possible sense.

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I will try to summarise the madness contained within this gem’s plot. I don’t normally like to give detailed and ‘scene by scene’ plot outlines in my reviews but what you will read speaks for itself and sells the film perfectly.

The film starts with a voice-over précis of the final events of the original but with the voices of the new actors in this production (only one actor returns from the original film and thankfully it’s Ruth Gordon who is as brilliant in this movie). In this scene Rosemary (now played by Patty Duke) discovers  the baby she has given birth to but has been swiftly taken away from her. Rosemary looks at him and expresses horror at his eyes. Obviously, the dialogue here is different and not as impactful as the original.

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The first part of the film is called The Book of Rosemary and concerns her taking her son (called Adrian by the Satanic coven we know and love from the original but called Andrew by her to try and distance him from the role the coven think he’s destined to live) away from the clutches of the coven and running away. She seeks refuge in a synagogue knowing that if she is in a house of God then the coven can’t harm her in any way. It’s here that we see her press a crucifix on a chain into her son’s chest only for her to later see with horror that it has seared an imprint into his skin. We then see Rosemary the next day at a bus stop making a call to her famous actor ex-husband Guy (now played by George Maharis). As she speaks to him a group of children start to taunt Adrian/Andrew and take his toy car from him. In return he turns all full-on Satan on them and they fall to the ground unconscious. A random stranger Marjean has seen the whole incident and hides Rosemary and her son in her trailer. Marjean then offers to help Rosemary and her son to get onto a bus to escape. But whilst Rosemary boards the bus, the bus doors close and it rides off with her trapped on it whilst Marjean is at the roadside with Adrian/Andrew in her arms. It becomes apparent that Marjean is in fact a follower of the coven and this was planned all along. Rosemary goes to speak to the driver of the bus but it’s then revealed that there is no driver on the bus. And this is the first act of the film! Crazy doesn’t describe it!

The second part of the film is called The Book of Adrian. It’s more than 20 years later. We see Andrew/Adrian get pulled over for speeding. He later goes to a casino/nightclub that Marjean runs (described by him as his Aunt) who is alarmed by his apparently wild behaviour. She then refers to his parents as being killed in a car crash. We then see Adrian/Andrew’s demonic side come to the fore as he tries to run over a biker gang. Minnie and Roman (the wonderful Gordon and Ray Millard) turn up to the casino to see Andrew/Adrian and ask him to drink one of Minnie’s concoctions (echoes here of the chocolate mousse and ‘health drink’ from the original film) and when he falls unconscious they paint him in demonic warpaint.

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The warpaint scene. Once seen, never unseen

It’s here that I will leave the plot synopsis alone as to reveal anymore would impact on the viewers experience on watching this TV movie for the first time (just to add that there is a third act to the film called The Book of Andrew). Theres a musical interlude within this second segment where we see a far-out rock band at the casino get stage invaded by Andrew/Adrian. It’s one of the freakiest scenes of the whole movie and thats really saying something!

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Lets here it for the band

There are never any troughs in this movie. It starts at weirdness level 11 and continues at that level until the climax.

I’m so glad that this sequel was made in the hedonistic, narcotically charged 70’s as the full unbridled eccentricity of the movie could be shot with no holds barred by filmmakers who were clearly heavily medicated. Add to the mental shenanigans a brilliant darkly psychedelic soundtrack by the ever great Charles Bernstein and you have a rollicking great time. There is also some impressive cinematography that is some of the best I’ve seen in a TV movie. In fact, I love the idea of some Average Joe at home in his 70’s American home watching this be accident. I actually think it enriched and expanded minds.

I’m so glad that this movie was made and that comes from a massive fan of the original film. If you love mental cinema, watch this. In fact, watch this back to back with the Exorcist 2: The Heretic.

I saw this on YouTube in a transfer from a very poor VHS tape. With Scream Factory releasing horror TV movies on Blu ray nowadays I hope to God (pun not intended) that they unleash this. A great transfer using a pristine print would be something to behold. This film deserves it.

4/5 out of 5 stars

 

Day 18- 31 Days of Halloween- The Forest (1982)

Day 18- 31 Days of Halloween- The Forest (1982)

Two couples decide to go camping in the woods. Arriving separately (darn that wonky radiator!), they soon realise that the woods aren’t as peaceful and reinvigorating as they first thought. It is in fact a killing ground for a father who mudered his philandering  wife, went mad and took his two young children to live in a cave. Unfortunately they got sick and killed themselves. Daddy has been killing anyone stupid enough to camp in his woods ever since and eating their remains. Insanity does that to you.

The Forest is one of the more, erm, extreme entries in the ‘City Folk vs Hillbillies’ horror genre which is really saying something when you think about how outthere some of the other films in this genre are (Deliverance and it’s ‘squeal like a pig’ sequence springs to mind and that was a studio film!).

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The film starts almost like a zany and not very funny comedy movie made for TV about the two witless and dull couples deciding to live in the wilderness for the weekend (you almost expect the TV listing to include the words ‘with hilarious consequences!’). Thank God the makers of this decided on making a horror movie instead. In the genre it’s quite natural to set up irritating characters to have them despatched by the ruthless killer. It puts the audience firmly on the side of the killer as we root for him to kill the boring couples in even more of a sick and twisted fashion.

I love the fact that the couple of guys decide to eat with the hunter whilst being blissfully unaware that a) he is the killer and b) the meat on the barbecue could very well be the remains of one of the women who arrived before them and was promptly bumped off.

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I also love the fact that the ghosts of the killer’s children appear to the campers to warn them that ‘Daddy’s gone a-huntin’!’ and to warn them if he’s near.

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The kills are gory (thankfully) and the scenery is glorious. This isn’t some lost gem of the horror genre but I’ve seen much, much worse. Check out the DVD/Blu ray release of this and compare with the VHS transfer thats on YouTube. The difference is astounding.

3 out of 5 stars

 

Day 17- 31 Days of Halloween- Basket Case (1982)

Day 17- 31 Days of Halloween- Basket Case (1982)

Duane books into the sleazy flophouse Hotel Broslin with a large basket. It’s contents consist of his deformed twin brother who he used to be conjoined with. Both Duane and his twin are hellbent on enacting revenge on the surgeons who separated them against their wishes.

Basket Case will always occupy a special place in my dark little heart. When my family first bought a VCR in 1982 we rented two films. One was the cartoon of Captain America from the 60’s. This choice was intended for 8 year old me. And whilst Cap is very cool, it was the other film that intrigued me.

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It was rented to be viewed by the rest of my family when I had gone to bed. It was Basket Case. The forbidden always seemed more alluring to me. And after much pouting and pleading I was allowed to watch the film. It was an amazing night of mind-expanding and gleefully deprived family viewing.

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The film hits every bullseye it aims for. Theres humour (check out feeding time for the basket’s resident), gore (each attack is bloody as hell and very inventive) and well rounded characters whether they’re the main players or the supporting cast. In fact a film could be made based on any of the film’s characters and it would rock.

Whilst the film does contain very black humour this doesn’t dilute the horror sequences which pack a real punch still. In fact, Basket Case has an air of sleaze, filth and edginess that reminds me of another masterpiece, Bloodsucking Freaks. Both films capture a time when 42nd Street and The Deuce reigned supreme. Basket Case even takes us into one of the grindhouse cinemas. We even get a cameo by Sonny Chiba!

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The big reveal

Basket Case is The Evil Dead’s low budget filmmaking genius with John Waters’ writing brilliance. I can’t think of any higher recommendation to a fellow lover of warped cinema brilliance than that.

5 out of 5 stars

Day 16- 31 Days of Halloween- Contamination (1980)

Day 16- 31 Days of Halloween- Contamination (1980)

A boat sails into New York containing what appears to be innocuous boxes of coffee. However they actually contain alien eggs that cause people to explode when a change in heat cause the eggs to emit their contents.

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Yes, this is a cheap Italian Alien rip-off but it’s darn entertaining nonetheless. There might be considerable budgetary constraints but imagination can overcome any amount of limitations. This film is testament to that.

The film suddenly changes from a horror/sci-fi splatter fest and morphs into an action/adventure flick but this is where the film starts to lag. It doesn’t affect the film massively but you’re left wishing that the film hadn’t moved into this kind of direction.

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However, the ending brings the film back to it’s gory best as we get to meet the creature that actually produces these eggs. The ‘Alien Cyclops’ is really something to behold.

Check out Arrow Video’s Blu ray of this pic. It’s also something to behold.

3/5 out of 5 stars