Mystery can take on many forms in the diverse world of cinema. It is often a clever style point composed of unique circumstances. Mystery can frighten as well as entertain, especially when mixed with fantasy or horror. When science fiction is added to the mix it will create intrigue and excitement for what will seem like a distant atmosphere. The idea is to present a plausible plot, but dress it up with details that expand the imagination. Interest is stirred when the viewers feel for what is happening and relate to the ones it is happening to. At that point is when the mystery becomes the familiar. What is familiar has the ability to remain as a timeless phenomenon.
Disney films possess the skillful detail that attracts both family and adult audiences. The format of plot and unraveling detail with it becomes charming as it does emotional. The performances would either be animated or live acting. Strength is present in the careful film production so that the audiences can get attached to the setting itself. The script would often feature lines and moments that impact the mind like wise prophecies. Disney films continue to maintain a mainstream appeal that will allow future examination of its content with a positive and engaging interpretation.
In 1980, Walt Disney Productions decided to release a film that had American and British roots. The title was called The Watcher in the Woods, and it was to be based around a mystery novel by Florence Engel Randall. This was a tale involving supernatural occurrences to an American family dwelling inside a British area. There were haunting and terrifying moments relating to the disappearance of one teenage girl. Filming would involve the locations of the popular Pinewood Studios and the city of Buckinghamshire, England.
The Watcher in the Woods stood out right away because of its cast. Famed actress Bette Davis would hold the lead in what was to be one of her last film appearances. She would die only nine years later at the age of eighty-one, but here she was as vibrant and commanding as any early role. In this film, she was the eerie owner of the English home that an American family moves into. Well-known actress, Carroll Baker, is remembered for a diverse filmography over the years. She was in the James Dean film, Giant (1956), and stood alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop (1990). She was to star as the American mother of the family moving into British territory. Scottish actor, David McCallum, would play the husband to Baker. He had gained notice from the television show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and currently works in NCIS. Lynn-Holly Johnson was a professional ice skater and would play the emotional, inquisitive daughter to Baker and McCallum. Kyle Richards, who in real life is the aunt of Paris Hilton, stood next to Johnson as her fragile and psychically gifted younger sister.
The supporting cast was equally as significant. Ian Bannen was the leader of a group of friends who would hold the key to the mystery surrounding the Bette Davis character. He received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and had an appearance in the Mel Gibson-directed epic, Braveheart (1995). Richard Pasco took on the role of close friend to Bannen and he was mostly known for British theater work. Another theater actress, Frances Cuka, was cast as the third and final friend who was also the most haunted by the experience. Benedict Taylor, a television actor, played the son of Cuka and romantic link to Johnson.
The Watcher in the Woods opens with the Curtis family moving into an English manor. Helen and Paul (played with believable ease by Baker and McCallum) are the parents with Jan and Ellie (played with evident sibling devotion by Johnson and Richards) as their children. Mrs. Aylwood (portrayed with a cold and eerie sensibility by the veteran Davis) is the one in charge of the estate and has to approve the final sale. She is reluctant at first, and follows the family around with suspicion. Helen and Paul are unnerved and immediately concluded this is not going to work out and want to leave. However, Mrs. Aylwood catches sight of the girls playing on the front lawn and is startled. She appears particularly attached to Jan and quickly reverses her decision. Helen and Curtis are floored when the agent announces the news and adds that it was more likely Jan who did the trick in making this happen.
The Curtis clan is happy to start a new life inside the beautiful and sprawling English countryside. Not long after the move is when Jan starts to experience unusual occurrences. She spots a series of glowing blue lights and objects like triangles. Ellie manages to take home a puppy and is overjoyed. She gives the pet the name ‘Nerak’ and spells it out on a wall. Jan is amused and then taken aback when Ellie says afterward that it was Jan who made that name and not her. Jan then notices from a mirror reflection that the name reads ‘Karen’ back.
Jan and Ellie go for a walk in the woods with Nerak one day. Ellie starts to wander off and Jan fears she is lost. The older sister frantically calls out to her young one with no avail. She is stunned to see a circular blue light glowing inside a pond and falls inside. At first she appears trapped under a thick branch but Mrs. Aylwood arrives just in time. Both Ellie and Jan are fearful that the older woman is out to do harm, but instead she saves the life of the girl from drowning. Afterwards, the manor owner and the befuddled girl have a deeper discussion. Turns out that Mrs. Aylwood has a daughter who looks like Jan and disappeared thirty years ago at the same age as her now. Nobody knows what really took place, but the older woman is fervent that her daughter is still alive somewhere. Jan is intrigued but uncomfortable at the same time, while Ellie is not informed of what took place.
The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Karen Aylwood starts to unravel as the film goes on. While pleased that the life of her daughter has been spared, Helen is adamant that Jan keep away from their landlord and the tragic story she is associated with. Jan is searching in the woods one day and meets a strange man named John Colley (played with an almost child-like manner by Pasco). At first she thinks he is a threat but he announces he once knew Karen and loved her. He claims that Karen had disappeared during a lightning storm at a nearby church. All of this took place in an initiation game in the form of a séance. Jan becomes convinced that Mrs. Aylwood was right and Karen is not dead but missing instead. At this time, Jan has been spending time with Mike (played with passionate charm by Taylor) and he is overprotective with her.
The film nears its conclusion as more pieces of the mystery start to shed light. Turns out Mike is the son of Mary Fleming, who was present with Tom Colley and Karen at the church. Mike confronts her about it with scorn, but she offers little information and no hope as to what else is going on. Details reveal that the day of the disappearance of Karen was also the same day as a solar eclipse. Jan and Mike are worried because both realize that a solar eclipse in town is fast approaching again.
Meanwhile, Tom visits with the stern and standoffish John Keller (displayed with a wicked streak by Bannen). He is wracked with guilt and tells his friend that he has seen Karen Aylwood once again. John is dismissive and tells his friend that they both know Karen died thirty years ago. Tom insists he met and spoke with a girl just like her in the woods. John is confronted with the very same dilemma when Jan shows up at his mansion doorstep demanding answers. At first he thinks the girl is around for blackmail and tells her off. Soon he recognizes that she is not trying to exploit the tragedy but instead solve it.
At the same time, Ellie is showing clear signs of possession. She is acting aloof and not remembering glimpses of time. She talks in a different voice and nearly reveals information about Karen, but reverts back to her normal state and is tearful. Helen blames Mrs. Aylwood and wants to take her family out of the manor entirely. Jan is emotional and pleads with her mother to stick around. She declares that it is the woods themselves that are haunted and it all has to do with Karen.
Jan decides that action must be taken on the new day of the eclipse. Her hope is to somehow resurrect Karen from wherever it is she is missing. In a vision just the day before, Jan comes into contact with the young Karen pleading for help inside a mirror. She puts the pieces together when she sees the image of the girl blindfolded: this was how she was dressed during the séance. Mike tells his girlfriend that his mother will not willingly return to that church because of her guilt. To the surprise of all, John is the first to show up. He tells Jan not to get her hopes up but then Tom stumbles in. Mike arrives with a quiet Mary and the original circle of the séance is complete.
Jan insists that the group reenact the séance that caused Karen to disappear. All are reluctant but pass her a blindfold and begin the ceremony. Everything proceeds as it did before and that causes all parties to be filled with fear. Wind begins to stir outside the church windows. A storm appears to enter as dark clouds fall and thunder enters. Mary is horrified and screams. Jan pleads with the woman not to break the circle and John drags her back. Light shows up and spreads inside the church building. Suddenly Ellie is there and walking slowly in full form of possession. From there the truth is finally revealed: the eclipse caused the Watcher (an alien from another dimension) to enter the Earth and switch places with Karen. The Watcher wants to return and announces that Karen is still alive and trapped in the alternate dimension.
The Watcher strolls towards Jan who starts screaming as she feels trapped in her position. The gallant Mike lurches forward to break the circle and save his girlfriend from harm. When all is concluded all is well. Jan is still there and Ellie has reverted back to her normal self. The three friends in the circle are calm and dust themselves off. The one surprise that nobody expected is in the form of Karen Aylwood. She has returned just as she was before, but at her current age and with the blindfold still on. At that critical moment, Mrs. Aylwood bursts into the church and is reunited with her daughter.
The Watcher in the Woods was a compelling film that captivated audiences. It earned itself a Saturn Award for Best International Film. The plot started and finished as a gentle drama that quickly turned into a suspenseful presence of the supernatural. All actors and production team involved translated the original novel into a family-friendly crowd pleaser.
I recommend this film for its clever storyline and gothic look of horror.
Movie: The Watcher in the Woods
Director: John Hough and Vincent McEveety
Cast: Bette Davis, Carroll Baker, David McCallum, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards, Ian Bannen, Richard Pasco, Frances Cuka, Benedict Taylor
Studio: Buena Vista Distribution Company
Running Time: 84 minutes
Brian’s Rating: 5-of-5 stars