Sunday, October 11, 2015

1980 Week: The Watcher in the Woods

          Elegantly made but too gentle to work as the supernatural horror show promised by its marketing materials, The Watcher in the Woods was one of many boundary-pushing pictures made by Walt Disney Productions during the experimental period that preceded the introduction of sister studios Hollywood and Touchstone. The folks at Disney were still feeling their way around the terrain of stories suited for grown-ups as well as children, so The Watcher in the Woods represents an admirable but half-hearted effort. It’s not in the least bit cute, and in fact the storyline is quite grim, but the climax feels neutered, leaving the impression that another studio might have made bolder choices with the same material.
          The picture beings with an average family seeking to rent the mansion of an English estate. The estate’s owner, aging widow Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), resides in a cottage adjoining the mansion. She’s a mysterious lady who remains haunted by the loss, many years ago, of her beloved daughter. When Mrs. Aylwood spots Jan (Lynn Holly Johnson), the familys oldest child, Mrs. Aylwood welcomes Jan’s clan to her estate and keeps a close eye on Jan. So does a supernatural figure residing in the woods surrounding the mansion, which Jan identifies as the ghost of Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter. Jan investigates the story of how Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter disappeared, eventually learning that the young woman participated in a strange ritual with several friends, only to be snatched into another dimension. Can Jan help the displaced young woman return to her despondent mother?
          Based on a novel by Florence Engel Randall, The Watcher in the Woods is constructed well enough, and Alan Hume’s photography is atmospheric. Similarly, Stanley Meyers’ understated score lends the desired level of eeriness. However, The Watcher in the Woods fails to impress on several important levels. The central mystery is solved rather easily, the fright scenes lack real bite, and leading lady Johnson (of Ice Castles fame) is terrible. Her flat Midwestern speech pattern renders each line of dialogue inert, and her catalog of facial expressions ranges from confused to uneasy, with little variance in between.
          Had the filmmakers utilized the capable supporting cast more effectively, Johnson’s shortcomings wouldn’t have been as prominent, but Davis has precious few scenes while costars Carroll Baker and David McCallum phone in their miniscule roles. (The British actors playing superstitious locals merely play to type, albeit quite professionally.) Once The Watcher in the Woods reaches its effects-laden finale, the hoped-for suspense has been supplanted by tedium. Nonetheless, it’s likely that some young viewers in 1980 were fascinated by this cinematic creepshow, and it’s fair to say that time has not completely diminished the picture’s modest charms.

The Watcher in the Woods: FUNKY

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