Another past event has just popped up in the Memories section of my Facebook account. Apparently, 15 years ago I was watching Halloween at the National Film Theatre.
And apparently, I have scanned and posted the NFT notes for the screening.
As I remember, this screening was utilising a brand spanking new 35mm print that had been freshly made. The video and audio were sensational and a far cry from the print that was used at another cinema screening I attended a few years before this. That print was from the original release of the film in 1978 and was in a dire state. Although it was of historical value and great to see the BBFC card for the film from when it was released, it looked and sounded terrible.
I love it when I find the unexpected on the internet.
Such as this merchandise that was made for the release of the brilliant horror film The Incredible Melting Man in 1977.
Why on Earth would a film company commission a children’s costume for a film that was rated for Adults Only?! Did they know that in fact loads of kids would flock to see the film even though it was horror as long as they had a responsible (ahem) adult in tow?
I love this merch.
I love forward to unearthing more inappropriate but brilliant movie related goodies soon.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Adapted from Stephen King’s best-selling novel, Cujo tells the story of a rabid St Bernard dog terrorising and besieging a mother and her son in their broken down car.
This is a wonderful film, not just because of the car/dog storyline but also because of the rich characterisation (a trademark of King’s) which builds up to this scenario. Thank God for horror films that feature characters that are fully fleshed out, realistic and relatable to the audience. And an audience that the filmmakers warrant with having a modicum of intelligence. Thankfully the filmmakers had the good sense to carry over the nuance and eye for detail contained in the film’s source material and not dilute or erase it upon it’s transfer to the big screen.
The movie is invested in portraying realistically flawed and multi-faceted characters and showing just how dark and dysfunctional life is for these players. Just as Donna’s husband Vic has created the advertising campaign for a cereal that is later found to have made several young children up and down the country vomit profusely, this is a perceptive peek into the whole ethos of the film. The professor in the commercial eats some of the cereal before showing the bowl’s contents to the audience and exclaiming ‘Nothing wrong here!’ This is a sarcastic and caustic comment on the artificial and ‘too good to be true’ world portrayed in the media (and particularly advertising) and the reality of the characters in the movie.
If the characters in the movie existed within the unreality of a commercial, Donna Trenton (the ever brilliant Dee Wallace-Stone) would be happily married, Charity Camber wouldn’t be in a violent relationship with her garage owner husband Joe and Vic’s advertising campaign would be a roaring success for a cereal that was rigourously tested before it went on sale.
But the film is only interested in depicting the reality for these characters without the sugar coating. Therefore, Donna’s marriage seems completely loveless to her to such an extent that she is having an affair with her high school ex-boyfriend Steve, Charity is trapped in an abusive marriage to her pig of a husband and Vic’s career might be in pieces after such an epic (and very public) fail regarding the cereal hes created a nationwide campaign for.
But the movie is also about escape. Charity announces to Joe that she has won the lottery and wants to use the $5k prize to go away with their son to visit her sister. We see her taking clothes and photos for her trip and it’s suggested that this will be a permanent departure rather than just a week away. She seems to pack in a hurry so that her escape isn’t discovered by Joe.
Donna comes to the realisation that she wants to work at her marriage and goes to break the news to Steve that she intends on not continuing with their affair. It’s when Steve races outside to try to talk Donna round that Vic rides by and sees the two of them together. Steve then goes full-on Cluster B throughout the rest of the movie, firstly seemingly trying to violently sexually assault Donna in her kitchen (thankfully Vic comes in at that moment whereby Donna confirms that she has been having an affair to him) and then trashing her family home whilst she is at the garage being held hostage by Cujo.
I love that Donna is shown to have some kind of psychic ability or finely tuned intuition. When she first sees Charity sat performing chores in the foreground of the garage her heart goes out to her as if she feels some of the pain that she experiences in her everyday life and purposely goes out of her way to speak to her. Likewise, when Donna sees Cujo for the first time before he’s turned into a rabid killer and is still a lovable St Bernard (albeit with a bite on his nose) shes still unsure and weary of him as if she foresees the horror to come.
Cujo the dog could be seen as a Return of the Repressed, a reminder of the brutal reality of life, a hurdle for Donna to overcome so that she can truly cherish the great things that make up her life and work on the areas (e.g. her marriage) which require more work. In fact, it’s when her son Tad is in a critical condition that her fighting spirit couples with her strong maternal instinct and she decides to become proactive even if it means risking her own life. It’s at this point that she leaves the car, grabs the baseball bat that shes noticed is on the ground and fights back. Cujo being a domestic animal turned rabid could be seen as a manifestation of Donna’s domestic sphere that has been turned upside down by her affair and that she now has to fight to mend and resolve her own situation.
Up until the book and movie of Cujo came out the St Bernard dog was either seen as cuddly or as a dog traditionally utilised as a helper (they are well known for their strong sense of smell and brute force which made them perfect for finding and rescuing those stranded in snowbound conditions) only makes it’s transformation even more extreme and subversive. Sharks were seen as killing machines and predators even before the novel and movie of Jaws were released.
The book differs from the novel is some key ways. I’m not going to go into the main way that they are different as I don’t want to ruin either experience for horror fans but I can understand why the filmmakers chose to conclude the film differently. If the film was ended the same way as the book the entire audience would have been alienated. Thats not to diss the conclusion of the book in any way. But seeing certain events unfurl before your eyes is very different to reading them off the page. Apparently King agreed and said that if he could rewrite any ending to one of his novels it would be Cujo and that it would resemble the film’s ending.
I find Cujo to be a terrific work. Whenever Dee Wallace-Stone is in a film you know it’s going to be something special. She gives one of her best performances in this film and exhibits a range that is nothing less than astonishing. Her transition from mother and wife into a survivor who is literally fighting for her life and the life of her child is utterly believable and exquisitely acted. It’s another example of the reality portrayed in the film that a character who is seen as flawed and human can also be the main character and ultimately the hero of the piece.
It’s also worth noting that the film portrays the heat and airless conditions in the car in which they are stranded in perfectly and yet apparently the film was shot in winter and it was freezing!
There are uniformly brilliant performances in the film. There needs to be special mentions to Danny Pintauro as Tad and Kaiulani Lee as Charity. Also, it’s great to see Dee’s late husband Christopher Stone as a such a dark character.
Lewis Teague’s direction is kinetic rather than static which helps the film move along greatly especially with the storyline that involves the dog keeping Donna and Tad in the car. It would have been very easy to have this sequence make the film drag through flat, uninspired direction in a scenario that revolves around one setting. Instead, Teague keeps the camera moving especially in an extraordinary scene whereby Donna ventures out of the car and is promptly attacked. To show her mental state after her attack the camera starts to move in 360 degree arcs. An ambitious idea in a cramped environment like the inside of a car. It works beautifully.
Donna really suffers in this film which is another nod to the reality of the movie as opposed to other more glossy motion pictures. There is much in common with Donna’s character at the end of the movie and Marilyn Burns at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Both have been thoroughly bloodied, battered and bruised on their individual trips to hell in their respective journeys. TCM and Cujo would make a great double-bill with both being claustrophobic horror films depicting mid-summer madness.
Yet another recommendation for the film was that good ol’ Siskel and Ebert hated it! The kings of the backhanded compliment called the film ‘dumb’, ‘flimsy’ and ‘dreadful’. However, King himself called the movie ‘terrific’. High praise indeed.
I think Cujo is massively underrated and one of the best horror movies of the 80’s.
Three women are travelling to a music festival but crash their car. They awake in the isolated mansion of an elderly matriarch and her daughter.
I love this film and not just because I found it in Poundland of all places.
This is a chiller that keeps you guessing until the shocking and completely nutty climax. Look at how great the film is framed and notice the tight editing. This film packs in so much but without any unnecessary filler. Also experience one of the sleaziest soundtracks I’ve ever heard. It’s like the director knew he was making a shocker that was destined to be a video nasty.
And that just what happened. The film was classified by the BBFC as an 18 but was then placed on the DPP list and banned anyway. This has meant that it has earned it’s place in horror history rather than being a very good movie that faded into obscurity. Thats one good aspect of the Video Nasties list.
The violence is graphic, the tone unique to this film alone. I hope this gets the Blu ray treatment it richly deserves.
The ending is shocking in a Sleepaway Camp kind of way. Un-PC in these over sensitive times but thats just what makes me love the film even more.