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Anchor Bay presents
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

"Listen the to the music. Now, try and see if you can hear that voice again."
- Ms. Aylwood (Bette Davis)

Review By: Dan Lopez   
Published: May 16, 2002

Stars: Bette Davis, Carroll Baker, David McCallum
Other Stars: Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards
Director: John Hough

Manufacturer: Crest National
MPAA Rating: PG for (themes of the supernatural)
Run Time: 01h:21m:00s
Release Date: April 02, 2002
UPC: 013131083293
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B-BA- A-

DVD Review

There was a time I remember fondly from my childhood when Disney began experimenting with entertainment that spoke to a somewhat older audience than those who enjoyed their 'G'-rated, animated epics about talking animals or famous fairy tales. They explored a slightly darker side of storytelling with films like Escape From Witch Mountain (also directed by John Hough), The Black Hole (Disney's first non-G-rated film), and this, The Watcher in the Woods, probably one of their most unusual productions back then. Often imaginative and, at the time, somewhat controversial because of their PG ratings, these late 1970s/early 1980s Disney projects were important for being so "off the path," weaving stories that spoke to something deeper in children than their love of cute stories and funny characters. Watcher in the Woods retains much of its audience, I would guess, because of its creepy storyline and unique approach to supernatural horror. There really has never been a film quite like it, and credit must go to author Florence Engel Randall for the clever novel on which it is based.

The story here deals with the Curtis family, who are moving into a large, rather intimidating manor. The property is owned by a mysterious woman, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), who will only allow a special family to live there. When she decides that the Curtis clan is fit for the job, they begin to settle their life in the beautiful, isolated spot. Soon after getting comfortable, though, their oldest daughter Jan begins encountering strange phenomena. The youngest girl, Ellie, also becomes effected by an unseen force. Eventually, Jan learns that Mrs. Aylwood's daughter disappeared 30 years ago without a trace, leaving behind a tragic mystery that's effected the community ever since. Jan feels compelled to solve the mystery, but in the process feels a presence in the woods surrounding their house; a strange "watcher" that monitors their movements. There is a connection between this presence and Mrs. Aylwood's lost daughter, Jan is sure of it, and this connection is the key to solving everything.

Viewers should be warned, up front, that Watcher is definitely a film geared towards the "young adult" range. It's structure and pace is clearly designed for potentially short attention spans and those who, for most part, only care about the core storyline. This is a positive thing, as it means that the film is quite full and busy, never really slowing for other tangents. Director John Hough (The Legend of Hell House) still uses great atmosphere and technique to make an impressive thriller, however. Despite the juvenile nature of the plot, as well as its main focus on young characters, it elevates itself above kid-film fluff by daring to be quite psychological. This is a horror film that asks viewers to rise to its expectations and offers a more cerebral approach to a traditional ghost story. Of course, none of this would be worth much were it not for a good cast to support it, and luckily Watcher rounds itself out nicely. Of course, this features one of the final film roles of Bette Davis, and despite exaggerated rumors of her being cantankerous and generally unpleasant on the set, her on-screen performance would suggest otherwise, actually managing a certain amount of chemistry with Lynn-Holly Johnson and Kyle Richards, the two young girls around whom the film revolves.

Controversy has followed Watcher around for years due to the fact that the current "theatrical" cut features a shortened and vastly simplified ending. After negative reactions to the original ending (which took a few steps away from the original novel), Disney wanted it trimmed a bit to make, in their minds, "more sense," although I'm not sure that would be the case. It would seem with the DVD medium, as film after film include "director's preferred" scenes edited back in or presented on the disc, the case against studio interference has been well made. Regardless of this bit of behind-the-scenes entanglement, Watcher in the Woods remains a clever attempt at an intellectual thriller and truly stands for the radical direction the studio was beginning to take (and sadly abandoned) during this time. Those who have never seen it might be pleasantly surprised by how well this thriller holds up, and how it can keep people guessing right to the end.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Watcher in the Woods suffers a little from grain and overall age, but luckily, it's handled very well. The transfer manages to minimize compression artifacts, even though most of the movie is very soft, using smoke and dark imagery. Colors are impressive, and the fine details from around the frame are easily visible and surprisingly clear. Anamorphic enhancement adds visible depth and warmth to the image, not adding any significant aliasing or other image problems.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
English (EX)yes
DTSEnglish (6.1 ES)yes

Audio Transfer Review: The film's primary audio is a very subtle (but amazingly effective) DTS-ES soundtrack, coupled with a Dolby Digital EX version. Unlike most DTS/DD presentations, I actually feel the DTS audio has a noticeable edge over the Dolby in terms of spatiality. In any case, both mixes provide a whole new ambience for the film. There is good usage of directionality and subtle (and not so subtle) surround channel usage. The clarity of the track really adds enormous dimension, since the quiet and appropriate soundtrack as well as the sound effects are better heard coming out of nowhere and end up very immersive. An additional Dolby 2.0 Surround track is presented, which is not as thick or filled with tension, but still offers a suitable mix that is mostly compressed into the front channels.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
2 Alternate Endings
Production Notes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director John Hough
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:03m:13s

Extra Extras:
  1. Bonus Booklet
Extras Review: Long-time Watcher fans will go immediately to the alternate endings section. For some time, the "uncut" footage of Watcher's originally conceived ending has been something most people have never seen, since the footage, until this DVD, has only been on limited print runs of the original film (which showcased in different forms after the studio-enforced edits). For those who have not seen Watcher and have, hopefully, not had it spoiled by anyone, I will not go into many details. The two alternate endings include the first attempt to get the originally conceived ending (in heavily chopped form) into the film, then the complete ending sequence as John Hough wanted it, with some different edits and changes to the roles of certain characters. In my opinion, this would have been simply amazing to have had as the original finale. It takes a very surreal, bold, and psychological approach to the film, rather than the clumsy, quick-and-dirty, theatrical cut ending. The quality of the footage is very good and, frankly, it's a shame some kind of branching-paths feature wasn't used to allow people to play the film with the original ending.
John Hough provides a commentary track that offers some insight into the making of the film. While he doesn't constantly talk and go on about everything, when he does say something, it tends to shed light on some element of production. Eventually, he gets into a groove and keeps up with the film nicely. He does a little bit to try and debunk all the ridiculous rumors of Bette Davis as a prima donna, trying to take control of production and criticizing her fellow actors publicly. His commentary is also extended to the deleted endings (optionally). Three of the original trailers and a TV spot round out the primary features. There's a well written bio of John Hough and, like most THX certified discs, an Optimizer for testing audio and video calibrations.
The keepcase contains a cardstock replica of the original poster as well as an impressive, 20-page booklet entitled "The Mystery Disclosed." The booklet contains details on why the original ending was omitted and how the film got to be edited as it is. It also contains interviews with Carroll Baker, Harrison Ellenshaw (the famous visual effects designer who helped design the ending sequence, who argues that the current ending is the better one), Lynn-Holly Johnson, Sam Nicholson (developer of the 'kinetic light' effect seen in many early '80s films), producer Tom Leetch, and Kyle Richards. The booklet also contains production photos probably never seen by most people until now.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

One of Disney's numerous "orphaned children" now adopted by Anchor Bay, The Watcher in the Woods gets obviously loving treatment here, and deservedly so. As Disney's first attempt at experimenting with horror, they took an educated approach with a clever story, talented director, and solid cast.


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