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THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bette Davis, Carroll Baker, David McCallum, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards
Director:  John Hough
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, DTS 6.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  83 Minutes
Release Date:  April 2, 2002

“What do you think happened to Karen?”

“I think…she’s still out there…”

Film ***

I was eleven years old when The Watcher in the Woods first hit theatres.  Walt Disney’s first attempt at a horror film?  You couldn’t get much more intriguing for a young movie lover!

Sadly, it would take a few more years before I could finally catch the film, and then, only on home video.  I didn’t have much horror experience under my belt at the time, but I found Watcher to be effectively creepy.  Granted, that was largely because I didn’t understand all of it…

Then again, some films are meant to be atmospheric and spooky, and don’t have much explanation to go along with them.  I’ve always been a fan of David Lynch…perhaps that explains why, to some reason, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Watcher.  It’s not top-notch horror, but effective, and entertaining.

Of course, the multiple endings have become the stuff of legends over the years (perhaps proving that not even the filmmakers had a full grasp of their creation), and this new DVD release from Anchor Bay contains the original ending plus two others crafted later.  For those who complained the theatrical ending was too abrupt and irresolute, you can now choose one of the other two.  Both explain a little more…but maybe that’s not for the better.  More on that further down.

The heart of the film is the presence of an attractive, wholesome family renting a beautiful elderly house alongside some woods that appear to be haunted.  At least, that’s what older daughter Jan (Johnson) thinks.  Strange sounds and visions of a blindfolded girl calling for help make both her (and us) think that maybe everything isn’t as it seems.

Could the girl in her vision be Karen, the long lost daughter of house owner Mrs. Aylwood (Davis)?  After several creepy occurrences, Jan gets the story from Mrs. Aylwood about what exactly happened some thirty years earlier.  It involved some kids playing together in what could be described as a mystical initiation ceremony.  Karen vanished…many presumed her dead, but no trace was ever found.

Soon Jan, with the sometimes help of her kid sister Ellie (Richards) begin piecing together the strange and elusive clues.  The kids who were with Karen the day she vanished are all now haunted adults who prefer not to talk about that day…yet they may just be the key to reversing whatever event happened thirty years prior, if that’s even possible.

The movie is beautifully photographed, which is a plus…director John Hough, who helmed the two Witch Mountain movies previously for Disney, has a good eye for setting and tone, and adds more fright than the script and actors can provide.  Ms. Johnson, of course, shot to fame as a champion ice skater…her acting range is less of an appeal here than her fresh, lovely face.  But Bette Davis, one of Hollywood’s true titans, brings a sense of spookiness with her presence to an otherwise flat character.

Disney may have never thought of themselves as producing a cult favorite when they made Watcher, but that’s exactly what they came up…a movie that doesn’t play at the forefront of their catalog, but gets discussed with excited whispers between fans who have loved it for more than twenty years as an A list production with B movie values.

As long as there are those fans like us, The Watcher will always be welcome in our neck of the woods.

Video ***1/2

Movies from the 80s usually make for the worst looking DVDs, but the exception continues to be Anchor Bay.  The Watcher in the Woods gets a THX red carpet treatment here, and this anamorphic transfer is exemplary.  Coloring is good, detail levels are sharp and strong…there is an occasional touch of lack of definition when images are black, but these are slight and highly forgivable given the age of the film.  Considering some of the “major” 80s titles being offered by other studios on disc, Anchor Bay proves themselves the cult and horror fan’s best friend by delivering a DVD that puts most of them to shame.

Audio ***1/2

How can you not love Anchor Bay when a title like The Watcher in the Woods gets both extended Dolby Digital and DTS remixed soundtracks?  This studio has never been timid when it comes to remastering sound, so as usual, you can expect more than a fair share of discreet rear stage usage and punch from the subwoofer.  The woods scenes are atmospheric, with wind wailing, thunder crashing and more, and this mix puts you right in the middle of it.  The audio is loud and dynamic from start to finish…the only telltale sign of the movie’s age really are the dialogue oriented scenes, which sound fine, but just a tad thinner than the rest of the audio.  All in all, an excellent offering.

Features ****

The main attraction here is the alternate endings…few movies have had more famous ones.  Both are here, the six minute séance one and the 14 minute “space” one, with or without commentary by director John Hough, so now you can decide which Watcher you like best…at the least, you’ll be able to say you’ve seen the Watcher!  John Hough also provides a commentary for the film…decent, occasionally sparse, but he speaks with modest clarity and offers occasional good bits about the cast, the story, and his own concepts about the film’s structure.  There are three trailers and a TV spot, an informative bio on John Hough, a THX Optimizer, and though I usually don’t consider them features, I have to mention the superb 20 page booklet included.  It outlines not only the alternate versions of the film, but includes new interviews with the stars and others, plus plenty of color photographs.  A terrific presentation all around.

Summary:

Anchor Bay strikes gold again with another stellar presentation of a cult favorite, making a better DVD version of The Watcher in the Woods than Disney probably ever wood.  For fans of the movie, you can’t ask for a better or more quality offering than this.