Every now and then, Disney has this habit of watching something scary succeed, responding by releasing something outside their typical fare that pushes the spookiness a bit further than usual, then quickly regretting it and burying all traces of that project. It happened in 1995 when living Poochie Jeffrey Katzenberg, who despised Disney's soft image, singlehandedly willed a short called Runaway Brain into existence, starring a drooling, fanged, parent-repelling Mickey Mouse. Katz left for Dreamworks before the short was completed, and the other terrfied execs tried to cut and snip most of the edge out of it before release. They were still so embarrassed by the end result that they buried it after one theatrical showing, and its only home release was tucked away in the back end of a DVD aimed at collectors. According to this article, Disney employees can get in trouble for wearing a shirt with that Mickey on it around the studio.
It happened in 1997 with a series called Nightmare Ned, based on a computer game, about a kid who had frequent nightmares about his own problems. Only one season was produced and dumped onto ABC Saturday Morning a few months before the "One Saturday" revamp; then Disney acted like it never met the kid. It's happened with theme park rides (the story behind Alien Encounter is quite interesting) and with Disney Channel Original Movies (after some parental complaints, Don't Look Under The Bed was banished from repeats).
And it happened in the late 70s when Ron Miller, an ex-football player who inherited control of Walt Disney Productions through nepotism, was looking to expand his then-small company's reach. He desired to attract the elusive young adult market, because the cool kids wouldn't touch anything Disney at the time with a 40-foot pole. Miller came across a 1976 novel about a teenage girl being haunted by an unseen malevolent figure, and a producer working with him is reported to have said, "This could be our Exorcist!" Let that sink in for a second. Disney was, at one point, looking to compete with The Exorcist.
That's how, in April 1980, a film called The Watcher In The Woods debuted at Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City. Intended for wide release later in the year, it was instead yanked after just ten days. After some re-editing, it was released on a staggered schedule in various parts of the country throughout 1981. Was it so terrifying to its initial audience that Disney had to tone it down? We may never truly know, but based on the evidence, it's more likely the re-edit happened because the first critics to review Watcher hated it. The ones who saw the 1981 cut were more kind.
What do you think of a Disney movie from this era that actually needs a disclaimer posted on its trailer? Sure, Walt himself had allowed films that had some frightening moments, but the company had never deliberately made the move into horror until this point. For one, brief moment, they were serious about shredding their family-friendly image like Leatherface with a chainsaw. This is one of the movie posters they considered shipping out with the film. SWEET CHRISTMAS.
What do you think? Are you ready to explore this most unusual of anomalies, this tribute to terror, this icy nightmare from a studio that was usually known for being gentle? Hold on tight. WE'RE HEADING INTO THE WOODS.
Jan and Ellie Curtis are American sisters who have just moved to rural England. The owner of an old mansion has agreed to lease some of their rooms to their family. They're especially excited because there will be a solar eclipse in about a week, and the distant locale should provide the perfect viewing spot.
When their car pulls into the driveway the owner of the mansion is waiting for them, Mrs. Aylwood, played by nothing less than Hollywood legend Bette Davis. She was still popular enough that a song about her eyeballs would reach the Top 40 the following year, but her showing up in a Disney movie is actually not the best of signs. The studio was a laughingstock at this time. Nobody from the 1970s coult have conceived of a future where Disney would own everything and be the center of all popular culture.
There was a saying in Hollywood back then: "Disney either gets you on the way up or the way down." Actors typically starred in Disney movies as they were climbing the stardom ladder (Kurt Russell) or as they were descending it (Davis). Disney NEVER landed an A-lister at the peak of their career, they were just too uncool for that. The real reason Davis is here is because her available roles were dwindling late in life.
Jan is wandering around, scoping out her new room, when she spies a strange glow coming from the woods outside the mansion. She sticks her hand against the window and peers outside. As she concentrates on the glow, a blue beam suddenly shoots out and cracks the window, cutting her hand in the process. Her hand is kept off-camera to prevent showing any blood, which is weird given the ambitions of this movie to not hold back.
You shoudn't assume that, just because this belongs to the children's horror genre, that it's been softened for kids in any way. As they say, "this is before safety was invented." There are some genuinely freaky moments in this film, and one is coming right up. Jan picks up a heavy antique mirror and sets it on the wall. Then she notices...it's not showing her reflection! She slowly raises her hand against the glass, which makes the viewer tense up since you remember this is how she hurt it last time. Nothing happens...
...then she lowers her hand and THEN the glass cracks. And THEN the image of a wailing girl with a blindfold over her eyes appears where the cracks intersect, with a ghastly noise playing over it! Jan freaks out and swats the mirror, causing it to fall over and break.
For every fright that's earned, though, there's one that isn't. The Watcher In The Woods is not afraid to resort to cheap jump scares, and every single one of them turns out to be something that isn't harmful in any way. In this case, it's just Ellie with a mask.
This movie was originally released two months before The Shining, and if it had happened afterward, I would have considered the Ellie character suspicious. It's uncanny how many things she has in common with Danny Torrance. There's the "you have the gift, kid" talk between Ellie and the caretaker (in this case Mrs. Aylwood). There's the conduit that delivers otherwordly messages to Ellie (in this case a puppy, though it doesn't live in her mouth). Then there's the tendency to write the things this conduit tells her on glass with backwards handwriting. Had Watcher stuck to its intended release schedule, it would have gone nationwide in June 1980, AT THE SAME TIME as The Shining. Wonder what the critics would have thought of that. Would its impact have been diminished? Perhaps not...critics hated The Shining at first.
Ellie has named the puppy Nerak. It's Karen backwards. When Jan tells her neighbor Mike about Ellie's weird behavior, he's shaken by the name "Karen." That's the name of a teenage girl that died in a church fire thirty years ago, and three people who still live in the community were witnesses -- John, Tom and Mary. Mary is Mike's mother. And Mrs. Aylwood is Karen's mother!
Jan has been through a couple things already, but she doesn't start becoming truly spooked out until her ill-fated first venture into the woods. Ellie's puppy runs in, Ellie runs after it, and Jan runs after Ellie. Then Jan can't find Ellie and starts running around in a panic, yelling her name. Jan wanders into an area covered in blue fog, and it's there she finds Ellie, who says she never heard Jan call. Jan finds this hard to believe.
As Jan starts looking around, she hears an eerie tune being hummed by someone unseen. Ellie asks why Jan is singing it, and Jan swears it wasn't her. Then Jan notices a glowing blue ring has now appeared in the pond near them. As she leans in to examine it, a blue bolt not unlike the one that cracked the window shoots straight at her, causing her to fall into the pond.
There, trapped by a submerged branch, Jan nearly drowns. She only makes it out alive thanks to Mrs. Aylwood, who has arrived just in time to remove the branch and pull her out.
Some time later, Jan, Ellie and Mike are going horseback riding when, suddenly, Jan's horse goes out of control and takes her back into the woods. Once it gets to a large gate, the horse bucks her and runs off. Jan realizes she has been brought to the old abandoned church where Karen allegedly croaked.
Jan slowly wanders
into the chapel, where she sees another glowing blue symbol
appear on a coffin in the middle of the area. She slooooooowly
looks inside, and....
EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK IT'S THE BLINDFOLDED GIRL AGAIIIIIIIIIN!
Then she looks a second time and sees nothing but standing water. A couple seconds later, a flock of bats RUSHES out of the thing and knocks her on her behind. That's the one jump scare in this movie that works.
Mike and Ellie have caught up to her now. "I SAW HER! I SAW THE GIRL AGAIN!" she insists, pointing at the coffin. Mike is skeptical. As if her nerves weren't on edge enough right now, she feels a chill behind her back and slowly turns to see a stranger standing in the open doorway!
The stranger turns
out to be Tom, one of the three witnesses. He definitely knows
something, and meets up with John at his house later that evening
for a fireside chat.
"She says Karen was there."
"She appeared as a middle-aged woman?"
"No. Still a teenage girl. Even with the blindfold on."
"That's impossible. It's been thirty years. None of us would look the same."
Not sure why they'd be puzzled by this; everyone knows ghosts don't age. They seem to be talking like she could potentially still be alive...but how?
Heed my warning: there is a HUGE jump scare right after their conversation ends, where a monster-witch thing suddenly looms at the camera while a high-pitched noise blares out. It's another fake-out; Jan and her friends are at an amusement park, inside a haunted house ride. One would think Jan, who is currently living the ride, wouldn't want to enter it...but she comes out laughing and having a good time. Then she wanders into the Hall of Mirrors.
Oh Jan, really? You really think THIS is a good place for you to be? You're going to be surrounded by wailing blindfolded girls in a second!
Reliably, that's what happens, but her wailing is a bit more coherent this time. This time, Jan can tell she's saying "help me."
Jan races out to Mike and tells him she now knows what to do. "She wants me to find out what really happened that night in the church! That's how I can save her!" She admits she has no idea how to do this.
Her only lead right now is to talk to the people known to be with Karen the night she disappeared. She knocks on the door of a rickety old house and...an angry dog answers. She stands back, but then a human joins the dog...the same man we saw Tom talking to by the fireplace. This is John.
"I want to
talk to you abour Karen!"
"AND WHAT WOULD YOU KNOW ABOUT KAREN?"
"I've seen her! In mirrors!"
"Ah....so you see yourself in Karen?"
"NO! She's calling to me! She's trapped somewhere and I have to save her!"
The man becomes angry and yells, "What happened to Karen was a tragedy, and it's NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS! NOW SCRAM."
Jan's next idea is to visit Tom, and she cuts across the forest to get to him...another dumb idea as we get the distant shaky-cam perspective and brass horns that indicate the Watcher is following her. It never gets close enough for her to notice, though, and it doesn't attack. This is actually my favorite shot in the movie. It is one unbroken shot following Jan's back for 45 seconds while the music booms and growls. It's such a simple idea, anyone could do it, and yet it's charged with such tension.
Jan enters Tom's and sees nothing but a bunch of junk. The building is run down and nothing is very clean. There are also dead animals hanging from a wire. They're cribbing things from Texas Chainsaw Massacre now -- just the way Walt would have wanted it.
Jan cautiously enters his living quarters, and the soundtrack quiets down and gets silent, and I thought "oh NO you don't, movie, not THIS time." Eventually a cat jumped in out of nowhere and went "REEEOW" but I had anticipated this and turned down the volume.
But then the movie anticipated my anticipation and presented Tom, speaking no words but lunging straight at Jan with an outstretched arm. YIKES!
"NO PLEASE I DIDN'T MEAN IT I'M SORRY FOR COMING IN HERE NO PLEASE AAAAIIIEEEEEEE!!!" Jan screeches while curling into a ball against the wall. Tom's arm grabs her hair..and then lets it go. Tom now looks relieved. You see, he thought JAN was a ghost. He also tries to help the animals he finds in the woods, and the ones on the wire were those he couldn't save.
finally found an ally, Jan tells Tom, "Karen needs
you!" "But Karen's gone," he says. "I can't
"But you CAN help her! All you have to do is tell me what you and Mary and John did to her in the chapel."
Just like the others, he does NOT want to talk about that. "We...we were just playing a game...."
Tom explains that back when he was a kid, he and his friends had this initiation ritual they gave to new neighbors. Karen had just moved in, so they blindfolded her and took her to the abandoned chapel. Karen stood on a pedestal while the others formed a circle around her and held hands.
"We come to you, Karen Aylwood, asking you to become one of us. We ask the question...is this person worthy?" It's unclear whether they expected a response, but they got one this time. A flash of blue lightning suddenly struck the bell at the steeple, catching the place on fire. That'd be a no?
Mary ran out screaming. Tom followed her at first, but then had second thoughts and turned back...just in time to see the bell separate from its beam and come crashing down right on top of where Karen was. It surely would have been the end of her. But somehow, Karen was no longer there. And she was never seen again.
Back in the
present, Ellie is riding her bike around the mansion exterior
when Mrs. Aylwood approaches her. "Where did you hear that
song you're humming?"
"From Jan," Ellie tells her. "She was humming it the day she fell into the water."
"Hmm. Come in, child, there's something I'd like to show you."
She brings out a
music box that once belonged to Karen. It plays the same tune.
Aylwood gets to the point. "Now, your sister tells me you...hear things. Voices that tell you to....do things. I want you to listen to this music, and tell me if you can hear that voice again."
Jan comes back at that moment, interrupting them. "I FOUND OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO KAREN!" she hastily tells Mrs. Aylwood. "It was an initation ritual, and the bell fell, but Karen wasn't under it -- she had disappeared! And...."
Jan herself is
interrupted by Ellie, who is now under the spell of the music box
and yelling sharply, "KAREN! MUST! HELP! KAREN!" Jan
rushes over and asks, "How? How do we help."
"What door? WHERE?"
"DOOR IN CHAPEL! MUST HELP KAREN SOON! MUST! HELP! KAREN! VERY! SOON!"
"NO! NOT KAREN!"
"If you're not Karen then who are you?"
"NOT KAREN! STUPID STUPID!" Then she collapses. That last part was...confusing.
One other person
was watching, and it was Jan and Ellie's mother. Horrified, she
decides she has to leave this haunted place NOW, and the girls
are coming with her.
Jan insists they can't just leave now, not when this whole mystery is on the verge of being solved. But she won't take no for an answer.
The Watcher is displeased. As they're fleeing, the car battery starts dying out, because making cars short out is apparently a thing it can do. The vehicle stops in the middle of a bridge, and Jan immediately senses they're in great danger. She grabs the keys, forcing her mother to chase them. And Jan was correct -- as soon as they're on safe ground, a bolt of Watcher Lightning incinerates the bridge and explodes the car.
They're now trapped in the mansion in stormy weather and the phone is now dead. Jan is screaming that she's the only one who can save everybody, but Mom won't let her out. Ellie has been zombified by the thing again and she's writing "DO AGAIN TOMORROW" backwards on the bathroom mirror with soap while muttering "nearly too late."
There is a very strange and awkward transition at this point as the film cuts to the next morning, which is sunny, and Jan just getting out of bed like nothing freaky just happened a few hours ago. When she greets Ellie, she has a bright smile on her face. Huh? Is this one of those "the monster has trapped you in a good dream to stop you and you must see through the lie" plot twists? No, it is not. This is just the kind of bizarre pacing issue that happened with Disney films of this era.
Today is the day of the solar eclipse, and Ellie is looking through her drawers, trying to find the viewer. "Help me look for it, Jan. It's not like we can do this again tomorrow. It's nearly too late!"
Ellie is repeating exactly what she was saying in her trance state, without realizing it. Jan decides it must mean something.....the eclipse is tied to the ritual! It only worked the first time because it was performed during the eclipse, which means...the same people have to perform it again, and SHE has to take Karen's role! It's kind of a leap that she got all that from this, and what about the "door" Ellie mentioned? Guess what, it never comes up. Opening a door plays no part in the rescue of Karen. If you think that's sloppy you haven't seen anything yet.
Because we're about to get to the ending, and there's something you need to know first. Disney had some great ideas and a tense plot brewing here. They just didn't know how to wrap it up, and they never figured out how to solve that problem. The ending on the Anchor Bay disc is different than the one audiences saw in New York in 1980. The 1981 cut used a completely new ending, from a different writer and director, reshot after the 1980 release flopped. THREE endings were filmed altogether, and all of them are strange.
As John, Tom and Mary are about to perform the ritual, with Jan in the center and Mike as a fourth participant, a booming voice suddenly interrupts them. It's Ellie, possessed by the Watcher and talking in a different, stilted voice. Whatever the thing is meant to be, it talks like Tarzan.
"KAREN IN MY
DIMENSION. WE EXCHANGED PLACES BY MISTAKE. MAGNETIC PULL OF
ECLIPSE TRANSFERRED OUR POSITIONS. (Eclipses aren't
"magnetic".) NOW MUST EXCHANGE PLACES AGAIN. MUST
Jan demands to know, "Where's home?" but Watcher-Ellie insists, "CONTINUE. CONTINUE."
So why would the Watcher go through the trouble of possessing Ellie and telling them this if they were already doing what it wanted anyway? Why waste time explaining? Why not just let it happen? And where is the door you were talking about, Ellie?
Jan warns everyone that this time, the circle can't be broken at any point during the ritual, because breaking it the first time is what spit Karen into the other dimension. But...but...they broke the circle because of the blue lightning, which is caused by the Watcher, who couldn't be there yet if what you just said is true, so...what the heck?
Mike is adamant that if it looks like Jan is in danger, he won't care -- he'll break the circle no matter what. Jan says if he does, Karen won't be able to return home, so he musn't. As the ritual starts getting nuts and the wind begins swirling, Jan starts rising and glowing while screaming. Mike takes that as his cue and hurls himself onto the platform, breaking the circle, and then everything fades to black.
Fortunately, the ritual worked anyway. When everyone wakes up, Karen is standing there, blindfold and all, not having aged a day in three decades. Mrs. Aylwood walks into the chapel and can barely contain her joy. "Karen, you're home," she says, embracing her. And....that's it. We cut to credits at that moment.
Michael Scott Bosco, a friend of Watcher's director, attended the premiere of the movie and for years, his account of the screening has been our only record of what the original cut was like. It had a main title sequence where a little girl was playing with a doll in the woods while the Watcher sneaked up behind her (the scene was shot from its POV). The girl turned around, screamed and ran, while the Watcher picked up her doll, threw it against a tree and blasted it with something, causing it to catch fire. The opening credits played against the burning doll's face as it melted.
Bosco says the theater audience seemed to be enjoying the movie right up to the ending scenes....then they just became confused. When the lights went up, actress Lynn-Holly Johnson offered Q&As and the #1 question was what the heck the critics just saw. Johnson's response was to begin describing a deleted sequence from the film that fully explained the Watcher's deal, only to be shushed by a press agent from continuing. The critics were left with that and started writing their reviews, dissatisfied.
Below is the ending of the 1980 version. Turns out completing the ritual, or even starting it, wasn't part of the intended ending. They don't get to do it, because....THIS happens:
This was a major selling point for the 2002 DVD, which proudly declared on its box, "THE WATCHER REVEALED!" Ordinarily, when telling this kind of story, showing your monster is a big mistake. But in this case...that thing looks pretty badass, especially for Disney in the 1970s. I presume they were taking notes from Alien, when they weren't sneaking into the Shining studio and snapping Polaroids of their script.
Notice this version mentions a scene called "OTHER WORLD SEQUENCE" in its credits. That was the scene Lynn-Holly was shushed from talking about. It was part of the third ending, which predates the 1980 one and was never officially used. Jan just kinda gives a last-second infodump on what went down when she disappeared, but you originally saw everything.
That's correct: the Watcher was NOT a supernatural phantom, but merely a creature from outer space. We were better off not knowing that.
Regarding the poster shown earlier, Disney had cold feet about leaning into it that hard. This illustration was sketched up, which is still kinda scary but toned down somewhat:
However, even that was too much and the final theatrical poster feels scrubbed of any hint of menace.
The longer this film has existed, the more Disney has distanced themselves from it. It made the rounds on the Disney Channel and got its own Neon Mickey VHS release, but rereleases were hard to come by. When DVDs became a thing, most Disney movies were released by Disney and Disney only, but Watcher In The Woods was released by Anchor Bay. ANCHOR BAY.
They had plans to restore the complete original 1980 cut by inviting the director back to piece it together as he intended, but Disney refused to allow it. Anchor Bay was also denied the original opening for the bonus features because it "wasn't consistent with the Disney brand" or some nonsense. (The entire movie isn't consistent with your brand; what are you blathering about?)
Watcher seems to be one of the rare exceptions to Disney's overprotective nature. A remake of the film was released in 2017, but Disney had nothing to do with it beyond giving it their blessing. It was created by Melissa Joan Hart's production company and starred Anjelica Houston, and premiered on the Lifetime channel, a channel Disney does not own. It's almost like they're trying to plant evidence Watcher isn't their film.
I waited this year to see if they were going to slip it onto Disney+ as a Halloween feature, but they blew past the opportunity. I have my doubts it will ever show up there at all, and the odds of it ever being on Blu-Ray are nonexistent, less than zero, we're talking negative territory......wait a minute...
Way to ruin the momentum I had going. Turns out Disney JUST put Watcher in the Woods on Blu-Ray RIGHT NOW. However, you have to be a member of Disney's Movie Club to get a copy, so it's a strictly limited release. Much like the solitary Runaway Brain release in 2006, this is just happening to make the collectors shut up.
But it not only contains the alternate endings from the Anchor Bay release, it has -- for the first time in history since April 1980 -- the original title sequence. Turns out Bosco was a trustworthy source; it plays out exactly as he described, not that I would personally know since the clip hasn't been posted online yet (but it's inevitable now). The only element of the Anchor Bay release that's not included in the Blu is the audio commentary, but you can find it on Archive.org if you really want to hear it.
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