Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action Edition. The Watcher in the Woods

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Watcher in the Woods

Year: 1980

Source materials: A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall, published in 1976.

Budget: $9 million

Box office: $5 million

Plot: Americans Helen and Paul Curtis and their daughters Jan and Ellie, move into a manor in rural England. Mrs. Aylwood, the owner of the residence who now lives in the guest house next door, notices that Jan bears a striking resemblance to her daughter, Karen, who disappeared inside an abandoned chapel in the woods thirty years earlier. Jan senses something unusual about the property almost immediately, and begins to see strange blue lights in the woods, triangles, and glowing objects.


Eventually, Ellie goes to buy a puppy she inexplicably names “Nerak”. After seeing the reflection of the name “Nerak” (Karen spelled backwards), Jan is told about the mystery of Mrs. Aylwood’s missing daughter by Mike Fleming, the teenage son of a local woman, Mary. One afternoon, Nerak runs into woods, and Ellie chases after him. Jan, realizing her sister has disappeared from the yard, goes into the woods to find her, eventually locating her at a pond. In the water, she sees a blue circle of light, and is blinded by a flash, causing her to fall in; she nearly drowns, but Mrs. Aylwood saves her.


Mrs. Aylwood brings Jan and Ellie to her home, and recounts the night her daughter disappeared. Later, Mike discovers that his mother, Mary, was with Karen when she disappeared, but she evades his questions. Meanwhile, Jan attempts to get information from John Keller, a reclusive aristocrat who was also there that night, but he refuses to speak to her. On her way home, Jan cuts through the woods, where she encounters a local hermit, Tom Colley, who tells Jan he was also present at Karen’s disappearance. He claims that during a seance-like ceremony on the night of a lunar eclipse, Karen vanished when lightning struck the church bell tower.


Jan decides to recreate the ceremony during the upcoming solar eclipse, hoping it will bring Karen back. She gathers Mary, Tom, and John at the abandoned chapel, and they attempt to repeat the ceremony. Meanwhile, Ellie, while watching the eclipse from the front yard, suddenly goes into a trance-like state, apparently possessed, and enters the woods. At the chapel, the ceremony is interrupted by a powerful wind that shatters the windows, and Ellie appears.


In a voice that is not her own, she explains that an accidental switch took place thirty years ago, in which Karen traded places with an alien presence from an alternate dimension; thus, the Watcher has been haunting the woods since, while Karen has remained suspended in time. The Watcher then leaves Ellie’s body, manifesting as a pillar of light, fueled by the “circle of friendship”. It engulfs Jan and lifts her into the air, but Mike intercedes and pulls her away before the Watcher disappears. Simultaneously, the eclipse ends, and Karen, still the same age as when she disappeared, reappears – still blindfolded. She removes the blindfold just as Mrs. Aylwood enters the chapel.

Background: Producer Tom Leetch pitched the project to Disney executive Ron Miller, stating that “This could be our Exorcist.” Bette Davis, who was already cast as Mrs. Aylwood, was considered for playing both the young and old versions of the character. that the production crew had make-up and hair specialists flown in from Los Angeles in order to work on Davis, who was 72 at the time, in preparation for screen tests; the goal was to reverse her age appearance by thirty years. Upon viewing the tests, Hough cued for the crew to leave the screening room, and said, “Bette, I don’t think you’ve made it”. After taking one long drag from her cigarette, Davis replied: “You’re goddamn right”.

The film was shot primarily at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England, and the surrounding areas. The shoot lasted a total of twelve weeks. During filming, producer Ron Miller would often intervene to tone down intense scenes, leading to “unhappy compromises” between him and the filmmakers. The Watcher in the Woods had a limited release showing at New York City’s Ziegfeld Theatre beginning April 17, 1980. However, following an overwhelmingly negative reaction from audiences and critics, the film was pulled from the Ziegfeld Theater after only 10 days. Disney reshot the film’s ending, which cost the production an additional $1 million. 1 Due to the 1980 actors strike, Davis was unable to return to England to film reshoots, so her additional footage was shot in California.

The new footage was directed by Vincent McEveety, although he was not credited. 2In addition to the replaced ending, the film’s opening sequence was also changed: In Hough’s original cut, the opening credits sequence was played after a sequence in which a young girl playing in the woods encounters the Watcher, who strikes her doll with a blue beam of light, incinerating it. Disney re-released the revised cut of the film on October 9, 1981, and it grossed $5 million.

Changes from the Source Material: Instead of taking place in England, the novel is set in fictional Bywater, Massachusetts. Instead of residing in a cottage on the property, Mrs. Aylwood moves off to a retirement home, and returns at the very end. The glass does not break into triangles, instead it breaks into “X”‘s. Ellie becomes aware of the fact that the Watcher is using her to communicate, and at one point, she becomes an automatic writer of the Watcher’s messages.


Animation: The special effects sequences were completed at Disney studios in Burbank, California by Harrison Ellenshaw after filming in England was completed. Ellenshaw’s previous credits included Star Wars and The Black Hole. Art Cruickshank and Bob Broughton oversaw the photographic effects, while Cruickshank completed miniature photography. Hough was disappointed with the way the alien appeared on film, and recalled: “The animation was out of my control. I had no say. The last four minutes undid all the good work of the previous 87 minutes when the monster came out,” he continues. “It moved in a very stiff way, and it really wasn’t up to what we were later going to see in later films.”


Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood. She first came to fame as a waitress in Of Human Bondage. Other films include Dangerous, 3 Jezebel, 4 Dark Victory, 5 The Letter, 6 The Little Foxes 7 Now, Voyager, 8 All About Eve, 9 Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? 10 The Petrified Forest, The Old Maid, Juarez, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Watch on the Rhine, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Mr. Skeffington, 11 Another Man’s Poison, The Virgin Queen, Storm Center, The Catered Affair, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Death on the Nile, and Return from Witch Mountain. Carroll Baker as Helen Curtis. She appeared in the films Baby Doll 12 Giant, But Not for Me, Something Wild, The Big Country, How the West Was Won, Cheyenne Autumn, The Carpetbaggers, Sylvia, Harlow, Orgasmo, Knife of Ice, Bad, Star 80, Native Son, Ironweed, Kindergarten Cop, and The Game.

David McCallum as Paul Curtis. He is best known for playing secret agent Illya Kuryakin in the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard in the American television series NCIS. Other roles include Violent Playground, Robbery Under Arms, Harold Bride in A Night to Remember, Freud: The Secret Passion, Billy Budd, The Great Escape, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan Curtis. Johnson won the silver medal at the novice level of the 1974 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. She appeared in Ice Castles, 13 For Your Eyes Only, and Where the Boys Are ’84.

Kyle Richards as Ellie Curtis. As a child actor, she had a recurring role on Little House on the Prairie, and appeared in The Car, Eaten Alive, and John Carpenter’s Halloween. She is known as a cast member on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Ian Bannen as John Keller. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Flight of the Phoenix, as well as two BAFTA Film Awards for his performances in The Offence and Hope and Glory. Bannen’s other notable roles were in The Hill, Penelope, From Beyond the Grave, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Eye of the Needle, Braveheart, and Waking Ned.

Critical Reception:

  • Vincent Canby of The New York Times panned the film during its original 1980 theatrical run, writing: “I challenge even the most indulgent fan to give a coherent translation of what passes for an explanation at the end.” He also criticized the special effects, noting that the creature in the film’s finale “looks as if it had been stolen from a Chinese New Year’s parade.”
  • Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News similarly deemed it a “somewhat tantalizing but ultimately ridiculous suspense movie.”
  • Gene Shalit of Ladies Home Journal also criticized the film, writing: “The Watcher in the Woods wastes the talents of Bette Davis and wastes our time with the non-talents of two children who speak in monotones… This dreary Disney movie may scare some ten-year-old girls who enjoy teenage mysteries, but parents and other adults will be exasperated.
  • In a review published in Essence, Bonnie Allen noted: “I could not figure out what audience the film was made for. The plot has no new twist on the haunted English mansion scenario. Bette Davis, as the mother of the hauntee, is not enough to legitimize this horrid horror. As a matter of fact, The Watcher in the Woods is best left unwatched.”
  • Jim Wright of the Hackensack Record similarly felt the film was unoriginal, and that “when the payoff arrives… it is filled with absurdities rather than answers.”
  • A review published in Variety gave the film a middling review, noting: “The acting and writing are barely professional but the art direction, especially Alan Hume’s stunning camerawork, gives the pic a gloss.”

Legacy: A television remake of the same name starring Anjelica Huston was released in 2017.


My take: Okay, I have to talk about this alternate ending. So in the original version they are recreating the initiation when the Watcher materializes. It’s a big fucking muppet. It opens up its wings and engulfs Jan. They disappear. Then, dear God, they are on the Watcher’s planet in this dome like structure right out of MST3K. The stll blindfolded Karen is there and Jan and Karen embrace. The power of their embrace sends both girls home. Jane explains to Ellie that Karen was trappedin a negative image, the Watcher needed Jan’s positive image to free her.


So, yeah. People hated that. It’s on the DVD. It’s mostly a spooky movie once you get past the one note Johnson is playing throughout the film.

Next Week: Hocus Pocus