Legendary actress and two-time Oscar® winner Bette Davis (Dangerous, 1935; Jezebel, 1938) stars in this frightening and atmospheric thriller. When an American teenager joins her family in an English country house, she experiences strange and supernatural occurrences. Mrs. Aylwood (Davis), the kindly caretaker, knows the dark secret behind the happenings…and prepares for the return of a young girl who died mysteriously some thirty years earlier! The Watcher In The Woods weaves a haunting, riveting tale that stays with you long after the explosive ending!
This film has been on my radar for a while. I hadn’t heard anything about it, but it started popping up in second-hand DVD shops in recent years and the artwork left an impression on me. But it was a Disney film and the cast didn’t really make up for it – for starters, the only person I recognized was Bette Davis (in one of her last roles – and these final appearances aren’t usually very good, in my experience ).
But, after a while, I started to see a connection between this and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ and began to be curious to know what the story behind both of them might be. A key reason why I watch as many films and listen to as much music as I do, is because I’m insatiably curious about both. It’s only a matter of time before I make new connections and a new interest is created – whether it be a title, series, genre, actor, director, …etc.
So I picked it up for dirt cheap and planned a double feature.
The thing I have discovered since getting my grubby hands on it is that the home video edition is not the same as the theatrical version. It appears that, due to numerous issues, the film got trimmed down from 108 mins to 83 mins – a whopping 25 minutes (or, almost a quarter of its original length)!
Trimming a film after the fact is already an issue for a purist at heart like myself; it changes the tone and pace of a film and, in many cases, it can alter it dramatically (ex: ‘The Abyss’). Now, I’m not saying that the original film would have been better, but I would have liked to at least have the option of seeing the director’s original vision before seeing a product that was hacked together by what must have been editors unrelated to the original production.
What’s problematic is that the original film has not been seen since 1980. It’s simply not available on home video and never has been. Anchor Bay had made efforts to get access to the original print and put out a special edition DVD featuring both versions on it, but Disney (for reasons that escape many) totally rebuffed them. Thus, as it stands, the original film is but a memory. (for more on this, please consult the following page: http://www.retrojunk….)
In its current form, the film is a jumble of endless peaks with little pause for characterization and/or simply for the audience to absorb what’s going on. So what we get are a bunch of 2-dimensional characters that we’re supposed to instantly connect with and go on this supernatural journey with. Well, I wasn’t sucked in, and I’m guessing that the average adult wouldn’t either. It may work with children of five or so, but I suspect that the film would be too scary for them to see it in the first place.
What doesn’t help is the cast.
Firstly, our lead is a non-actress: Lynn-Holly Johnson was a professional skater. Then she made her first film, the only one before ‘The Watcher In The Woods’, playing… a skater. Then, after ‘Watcher’, she made ‘For Your Eyes Only’ in which she played… a skater (well, at least she was perfect for the airhead bunny part! ). She is the least subtle “actress” I’ve seen in a while, always delivering her lines like a brick through a plate glass window. And when she’s not shouting, she’s smiling. Always smiling, like she’s had one too many lobotomies…
To be truthful, the whole cast was fairly weak. And the little sister, in particular, deserved a horrible death (the character, obviously, not the “actress”). Bette Davis was alright, but only barely. I think that she must have been in a stupor at the sight of the mangling of lines around her. Just having to do scenes with Johnson must have given the legend aneurysms. I kept watching her and trying to imagine what she was thinking: “I’ve got to get a new agent”, “Oh, how my career has spiralled out of control”, “Someone please give me a dull knife – or a sharp spoon!”
As far as the movie goes, it was an intriguing premise (although nothing original, really). It was based on a novel, so at least it had a good start. But my understanding is that they took liberties with the material – which explains the troubles they had with the ending. Sadly, despite the setting and all that is mysterious goings on, the movie’s hardly suspenseful. And there’s very little mood, even though there are attempts to create atmospheric sequences.
And I wouldn’t blame the special effects for that, dated as they may be – they’re par for the course for the era, and they are decent enough. A good movie can create mood with very little, anyway. I suspect that the issue, based on the wholesale lacklustre performances, might be the director. Mind you, considering how the film when through the Disney shredder before being released on home video, the editing could easily be at fault. Or both.
It’s an appealing enough film that I would love to know what happened and see what I’ve missed. If ever someone allows the theatrical cut to be released, I would gladly give it another chance. As it stands, in its current form, I wouldn’t bother with a second viewing. And I could only recommend it as companion to 8-10 year olds on a rainy afternoon, when there’s absolutely nothing left to do.