Disney Does Horror:
The Watcher in the Woods
Leeroy Cross James takes a retrospective look at the House of Mouse’s dip into the horror genre, and how they used genre tropes to their advantage...
It seems odd—nowadays—to imagine the ‘Walt Disney Productions’ banner sitting innocently above the title of a horror film. In fact, it seems downright bizarre to think about The House of Mouse ever producing a horror movie at all, doesn’t it? At the turn of the 1980s, they did just that with a suspenseful tale, set in rural England: The Watcher in the Woods (John Hough, 1980).
Although Disney’s tepid dip into the genre was short-lived, the movie has gathered a cult following in recent years thanks to childhood nostalgic viewing. I can vaguely recall the first time I viewed The Watcher in the Woods as a child, and how the box art image of a ghostly face peering through the woods was enough to feed my curiosity of the contents before I even watched it. My parents must’ve thought ‘Oh, Disney. This will keep him quiet for an hour.’ How misleading that Disney banner was! Even the simplistic montage of the woods during the opening credits, filled with monstrous looking branches and trunks, accompanied by Stanley Myers chilling music box score, was enough to make me shield my eyes as a young lad. For some people, Disney films really stay with them for the nostalgia. Of course, these are usually animated classics with fairy tale morals and musical numbers. However, this is the movie I will always associate with Disney due to how distant it was from anything else I had seen them do before.
The Watcher in the Woods was loosely based on the similarly titled 1976 novel A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall. Production on the film began in August 1979, primarily at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England—as well as the surrounding areas—and was directed by John Hough (The Legend of Hell House (1973), Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984/85)). The idea envisioned by Disney was to create content that was more adult-orientated due to the declining success of their children’s live-action films. Co-producer Tom Leetch is said to have pitched the film to Disney by claiming: ‘This could be our Exorcist. While that comparison seems far from the final execution, let alone a tad ambitious, it’s clear to see that they wanted to profit from the popularity of the horror market thanks to The Exorcist’s (William Friedkin, 1973) commercial and financial success only years before.
The story revolves around an American teenage girl, Jan Curtis (Lynn-Holly Johnson of For Your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981) fame) and her family, who relocate to the British countryside. They move into an insanely cheap manor, formerly owned by their neighbour who lives in the cottage next door: the cold, sour-faced Mrs Aylwood (Bette Davis in one of her last motion picture appearances). Jan starts to witness strange things: flashes of light in the woods, uncanny visions of a ghostly blind-folded girl in mirrors, instead of her own reflection, and her sister Ellie (Kyle Richards, Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)) has started to hear voices. It’s revealed that Mrs Aylwood’s daughter Karen disappeared over thirty years ago during a séance with her friends (because, why not?) in a rundown chapel. Jan spends the entirety of the film trying to discover why she keeps seeing Karen and what she can do to help her get back home.
Visually, the movie is quite stunning. There’s no denying the presence—and influence—of British Horror in the production. British landscapes and exteriors play a part in developing the tone of the film, providing the eerie scenery and locations that only enhance the sense of dread to accompany the chilling music score. The Aylwood Manor alone embodies a standard gothic environment, full of grand interiors, a large staircase and the feeling of isolation that is expected in a traditional British horror tale. Not to mention how the seclusion of the house, thanks to the surrounding woods, only heightens the suspense and intrigue. Something that isn’t uncommon in a vast majority of British horror films is the use of the towering, dark house or mansion. One of the manors in the film has previous roots in the genre, having been used as the house for The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963). I’d go as far as to say that the setting is every bit believable despite being an American production—authentic even. Hough’s direction manages to evoke that authenticity, most likely due to his previous experience in the horror field. You can gauge what type of tale he’s attempting to tell with the obvious limits that have been set by the producers.
Even though The Watcher in the Woods gets a lot right, there’s no doubt that the movie is very flawed. From some of the questionable performances to the – quite frankly – dated special effects, the suspension of disbelief isn’t always enough to retain the fear when on some occasions the spell is easily broken—especially when watching it today as an adult. Visually, Bambi-eyed Jan fits right in as the heroine of the story. As she’s stalked by the mysterious Watcher in some first-person camera shots, that are strikingly similar to certain slasher movies of the time, you can’t help but keep your eyes on her . . . until we hear her melodramatic dialogue that’s worthy of a Danielle Steel TV movie.
In the third act, the film begins to feel like an extremely different movie altogether. The illusion and suspense are all but gone, and it leads to a lacklustre conclusion. Particularly when the eluded sci-fi aspect is touched upon through child possession, which is probably the only redeeming moment in the climax. When it was originally released to cinemas, the ending actually did include an alien figure who was intended to be The Watcher. However, this was panned by viewers and critics, so the film was pulled from cinemas and the ending was reshot into what we see today—without the direction of John Hough as he was too busy. And it shows. The sweet, soppy ending draws you back to reality completely, and makes you remember you are in fact watching a Disney production. These moments aside, there are some haunting scenes in the film. A particular scene that comes to mind is one where Jan enters a chapel, where Karen disappeared, and see’s the translucent apparition of Karen lying in a coffin. This is probably the scene that sticks with most people—it’s gloomy, macabre, and bloody terrifying when you’re a child.
Of course, I couldn’t write this piece without mentioning the silver screen legend that is Bette Davis, and her portrayal as Mrs Aylwood. I’d liken Mrs Aylwood to that of Mrs Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Just like Mrs Danvers is attached to Manderley, Mrs Aylwood feels like a part of the house, often appearing like a lurking phantom in every other scene, cloaked in black, dressed as though she is constantly in mourning. Her ghoulish complexion, sunken eyes and stiff, cold posture almost makes Mrs Aylwood an entirely intimidating presence if it wasn’t for her softer, more desperate moments in the film. The choice to cast Davis only seems appropriate, as in her later career it was her horror roles that gained some significance for the actor. I’d like to think this was intentional stunt casting after her highly successful turn in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) and her performance as a psycho-biddy Mary Poppins in Hammer’s non-supernatural effort The Nanny (Seth Holt, 1965), but that’s just wishful thinking on my part. That being said, she commands the same attention she did in those two previous roles, chewing up every scene she’s handed with her trademark sharp diction and glaring expressions. It’s pretty clear that Davis feels right at home in British horror, she looks just as authentic as the setting itself and plays her character just the way we want her to. Against all odds, her supporting role is what holds the film together and it’s hard to imagine what the film would look like without her in it.
Although The Watcher in the Woods has gathered a considerable cult following over the years, it was a box office failure at the time of its release, only making $5 million against a $9 million budget. Disney seems to have distanced itself from the film altogether with the UK DVD now out of print and its exclusion from the streaming service Disney+. There are apparently no plans for it to feature on Disney+ in the near future. So, although Disney may have forgotten about their dabble into the horror field, The Watcher in the Woods is still a movie a lot of us probably remember as our introduction into the genre.