Filmed at Pinewood Studios and the surrounding areas in Buckinghamshire, England, The Watcher in the Woods was one of several live-action films produced by Walt Disney Productions in the 1980s, when the studio was targeting young adult audiences. The film suffered from various production problems and was pulled from theatres after its initial release in 1980. It was re-released in 1981 after being re-edited and a revised ending added.
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" (an anagram for Karen). 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.Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood
Carroll Baker as Helen Curtis
David McCallum as Paul Curtis
Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan Curtis
Kyle Richards as Ellie Curtis
Ian Bannen as John Keller
Richard Pasco as Tom Colley
Frances Cuka as Mary Fleming
Benedict Taylor as Mike Fleming
Eleanor Summerfield as Mrs. Thayer
Georgina Hale as Young Mrs. Aylwood
Katherine Levy as Karen Aylwood (Replaced by an uncredited actor in the 1981 version)
The Watcher in the Woods is based on Florence Engel Randall's 1976 novel A Watcher in the Woods. Producer Tom Leetch pitched the project to Disney executive Ron Miller, stating that "This could be our Exorcist." Brian Clemens adapted the novel into a screenplay. However, Disney decided that Clemens' version—which had a different conclusion than that of the novel—was too dark and had Rosemary Anne Sisson revise it. This script was later revised again by Gerry Day in July 1979. During filming, Ron Miller would often intervene to tone down intense scenes, leading to tension between himself and Leetch. Miller recruited John Hough to direct the film after seeing his previous movie, The Legend of Hell House with Roddy McDowall.
When the film was pulled from theatres, several new endings were penned by various writers at Disney to substitute for the original. In addition to the work of studio writers, a number of science fiction writers, including Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman, and the Niven/Pournelle team, all working separately, were brought in and paid for alternate endings, but apparently none of those were used. Harrison Ellenshaw, the visual effects designer, later stated that there were "roughly 152" possible endings. Ellenshaw wrote the version of the ending that eventually accompanied the re-release of the film.
According to director John Hough during his audio commentary on the 2002 Anchor Bay DVD release, casting the role of the young Mrs. Aylwood was complicated, since the character is featured in two separate time periods; Bette Davis, who was already cast as Mrs. Aylwood, was considered for playing both the young and old versions of the character.
According to Hough, Davis "desperately" wanted to play both parts; so much so, that the production crew had make-up and hair specialists flown in from Los Angeles in order to work on Davis in preparation for screen tests; the goal was to reverse her age appearance by thirty years. After the screen tests were completed and viewed by the crew, Hough was concerned about Davis playing the younger character, and felt that the make-up and hair work had "maybe knocked about twenty years off of her age, but not forty"; Davis was 72 years old at the time. 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". British actress Georgina Hale ended up taking the role of the younger Mrs. Aylwood; according to Hough, she took the part largely because of her admiration for Davis.
In casting the leading part of Jan, Diane Lane had been the initial choice; however, due to complications, the part eventually went to Lynn-Holly Johnson, who had gained attention in the United States as a professional figure skater, as well as for her acting role as a blind ice skater in the 1978 film, Ice Castles, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination.
Carroll Baker, who was living in London at the time, was asked to play the part for Hough (who had long admired her work). She accepted the role. Eleven-year-old Kyle Richards - who played Ellie, the youngest sister in the film - had previously worked with Hough on Escape to Witch Mountain in an uncredited role as a younger version of her sister, Kim Richards.
The film was shot primarily at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England, and the surrounding areas. The house used in the film was on location; it has since been deconstructed and turned into apartments. Hough used several locations that are also seen in Robert Wise's The Haunting, most notably the grand mansion in which John Keller's character lives; this was the same house used for filming The Haunting (Ettington Park, Warwickshire).
After critical backlash during the film's limited theatrical run in New York in April 1980, the film was pulled from theaters and reshoots of its ending began without director Hough. 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 film had a total of three different endings, which are presented below. Each of these conclusions are featured on the film's 2002 Anchor Bay DVD release; the "other world" ending and the 1980 ending are included as supplemental material, while the final 1981 ending is the official ending of the movie. An "other world" sequence was an integral part of the intended ending for the film; it was never completed.The original ending featured an appearance by the growling Watcher, a skeletal, insectoid alien, which picks Jan up in the chapel and disappears. At this point, the two were supposed to fly across an alien landscape to the Watcher's crippled spacecraft. Inside, Karen was trapped in a pyramidal prism. According to Sam Nicholson, the visual effects supervisor, "For some reason, the girl who disappeared imbalanced this alien's craft when she went through this portal. Which in turn caused this alien to crash."
Jan reached out to Karen, and when the two embraced they were teleported back to the chapel. The girls then returned to the manor, where Mrs. Aylwood and her daughter were reunited. As they walked arm in arm, Jan explained everything to Ellie: the Watcher – who was switched with Karen by accident during the eclipse – needed Jan to free the girl. The visual effects for the "other world" scenes were not finished in time for the release because the film was rushed out to coincide with Bette Davis's 50th anniversary as a film actor in 1980 (Davis was first hired by Universal Studios in 1930). Rather than finish the existing effects shots, Disney opted to rewrite and re-shoot the ending, toning down the references to the occult, deeming them too dark.
The first theatrical ending, which was shown with the film's week-long screening in New York City (see Release history) featured only part of the intended ending, leaving out all of the "other world" sequence and replacing it with Helen's interrogation of Tom, Mary, and John at the chapel, after Jan disappears during their re-enactment of the séance. It did, however, include the appearance of the alien creature as it picks up Jan and disappears into thin air. While Helen is questioning everyone in the chapel, Jan re-appears, and emerges from a beam of light, hand-in-hand with Karen. The girls return to the house, where Mrs. Aylwood and Karen are re-united in the front yard, and Jan discusses the watcher with Ellie. This ending forced the film to rely on Jan's brief, cryptic explanation to provide closure. This conclusion to The Watcher in the Woods was nearly unintelligible as a result, thus giving the film the reputation of not having an ending. It also omitted Mrs. Aylwood's condemnation of recreating the séance on the basis that it was witchcraft.
The 1981 theatrical release is the "official" version of the movie and can be found on any VHS, laserdisc, or DVD release of The Watcher in the Woods. It is summarized above in the film's synopsis. In the official ending, the re-imagined Watcher (an ectoplasmic pillar of light) was less threatening and more supernatural. The nature of Karen and the Watcher's switch was clearly explained by Ellie in the chapel (whilst possessed by the Watcher). The new footage (including the forest scenes that replaced the original opening credits) was directed by Vincent McEveety, although he was not credited due to union rules which forbade a screen credit unless the director worked on the film for a certain number of hours.
The Watcher in the Woods had a limited theatrical test run in New York City beginning April 17, 1980. After negative audience reaction, the film was pulled from theaters the following week, prompting Disney to undertake reshoots of the film's ending, which cost the production an additional $1 million. Vincent Canby of The New York Times panned the film during its 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."
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." 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."
The film was re-released eighteen months later on October 9, 1981, after extensive reshoots and an entirely new ending. Promotional material for the film presented it a straightforward suspense film aimed for more mature audiences, a new endeavor for Disney; the film's theatrical trailer began with a title card reading:
Walt Disney Productions ushers in a new decade of motion picture entertainment with the following invitation to spend ninety minutes on the edge of your seat.
The film's second theatrical run with a brand new ending garnered it some critical praise, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it a "A rattlingly good suspense yarn. The ending is seamless, satisfying, resolving the mystery. The film is genuinely eerie and scary." An article published in The New York Times commented on the revised version of the film, writing: "The early good reviews for the revised Watcher in the Woods do not, by any means, solve all of Disney's problems. The PG-rated (Parental Guidance Suggested) movie is tense and scary enough to appeal to the teen-age audience that the studio has been trying to woo for the last four or five years. But can any film with a Disney label attract teen-agers?"
A review published in TV Guide criticized the film even with the revised ending and gave it one out of four stars, noting: "From the start it's apparent that [the setting] is no ordinary glen teeming with cute little Disney squirrels. Johnson, however, isn't intimidated by the woods, but strange incidents begin occurring when she becomes possessed by the spirit of Davis's long-dead daughter. Though the filmmakers make some effort to create a creepy atmosphere, they fail at one of horror's most basic formats—the haunted house story."
In the first week of this theatrical run, the film grossed a respectable USD$1.2 million and would go on to gross a total of $5 million domestically.
Though the film was released on VHS in the 1980s, it was not until 2002 that it was picked up for a DVD release by Anchor Bay Entertainment. There are a total of three separate DVD versions of the film released, each described below:
Released by Anchor Bay Entertainment on DVD April 2, 2002. This was the film's first official DVD release, and was shrouded in controversy over distribution rights. When Anchor Bay Entertainment obtained the rights to release The Watcher in the Woods on DVD, it spearheaded an effort to find the original film elements and enlist director John Hough's help in re-editing the film. They planned to release two versions of the film: the 1981 theatrical version as well as John Hough's director's cut, which would feature the censored opening credits (in which the Watcher scares a girl and incinerates her doll) and a finished version of the "other world" ending.
However, Anchor Bay encountered considerable resistance from Disney. In the end, they were forced to drop the original credits and release the "other world" footage as an abbreviated (14 minute long) and unfinished alternate ending. The other alternate ending (6 minutes long) is an approximation of the first theatrical ending. Both of these alternate endings were later included in Disney's own DVD release of the film in 2004. This version comes with a wealth of extras including an audio commentary by director John Hough, a detailed biography of Hough, two alternate endings, three theatrical trailers, and a TV commercial. The DVD also comes with a 20-page collectible booklet and card insert of the film's original poster art (seen on the DVD's front cover). The Anchor Bay DVD is now permanently out of print.
On August 3, 2004, Walt Disney re-released the film on DVD. This version has far less features than the Anchor Bay release, featuring only two of the three alternate endings and two theatrical trailers. It does not come with the audio commentary, biography, third trailer, TV commercial, booklet, or card insert.The film was nominated for a Saturn Award (Best International Film 1982).
Kyle Richards was nominated for a Saturn Award (Best Supporting Actress 1982) and Young Artist Award (Best Young Motion Picture Actress 1982) for her portrayal of Ellie Curtis.