The Watcher in the Woods Is a Generation’s Halloween Nightmare

Photo: Disney

Some movies come along and define the entire concept of terror for a whole generation of children, usually because elementary-school teachers decide that these films make for appropriate classroom distraction during the Halloween season. After all, what is more enticing to a group of rambunctious tykes than being handed plastic pumpkin-heads full of candy while being directed towards a TV screen? This was how, during the late '80s, a number of my peers and I became privy to the particular nightmares of The Watcher in the Woods.

One of the things that people who were traumatized by The Watcher in the Woods (a version of which was released in October 1981) love to point out is that it is, technically, “a Disney movie,” in that it was produced by Mickey Mouse’s home. But such a designation seems laughable given the unsettling presence it still has in the minds of those who grew up with it. Originally released in 1980 and based on a novel by Florence Engel Randall (which was titled A Watcher in the Woods; I love imagining the Tinseltown blowhard who just had to insist on a change to a definite article), this so-called “children’s film” selects a variety of phobias and stitches them into a patchwork of shimmering terrorscapes and half-baked ideas about secret societies, the occult, and, of course, dirt-bike-racing in rural England. In other words, it’s perfect.

Teenage Jan Curtis — played by Lynn-Holly Johnson, star of that classic treacle Ice Castles — moves to the English countryside with her mother (Hollywood bombshell Caroll Baker), her father (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS’s David McCallum), and her young sister Ellie (Kyle Richards, who was one half of the mind-divining young duo from Escape to Witch Mountain). The house that they are shown by a shady real-estate agent is a gigantic country manor that comes furnished from stem to stern with every wood-polished piece of lugubriousness that you could imagine; there are so many four-poster beds that the family could helm a Victorian orphanage. The embodiment of all things spooky then appears in the form of none other than Bette Davis, playing the traumatized, sallow, and melancholy next-door crone/property owner, Mrs. Aylwood.

Jan makes friends with a David Cassidy look-alike named Michael who lives with his mother, Mary Pierce, on a nearby farm. While visiting them one day, Ellie, increasingly possessed by an unknown influence, writes the puzzling name “NERAK” on a window (she then gives the name to her new, Toto-like dog). In the movie’s most infamous scene, Mary Pierce sees the name that Ellie has scribbled from the opposite side of the window; from this angle, it reads “KAREN,” at which point Mary’s face goes fully ashen. To this day, whenever I am in a cold car and decide to deface its frosted window with my finger, “NERAK” is always the first thing that I write.

Jan becomes increasingly haunted by a blindfolded doppelgänger who appears first in an antique mirror, and then, to greater effect, in the multifaceted death trap of a fun-house mirror. Straw poll: If you were an elementary-school teacher, would you label a movie in which a young girl is confronted by a thousand screaming, blindfolded Alice in Wonderlands from Hades as acceptable viewing for children? Just checking.

Finally, at a pivotal moment in the movie, Jan, frantically searching for the ever-deviant Ellie in the woods, sees a flashing blue circle in a pond and falls into the water. Mrs. Aylwood, as if conjured out of the thin, blue air, appears with a stick and seems to be pushing Jan farther down in the water to drown her. The bloodcurdling image of Bette Davis basically dressed as the apple-bearing queen from Snow White, viewed from below as the drowning Jan would perceive it, is carved so far into my brain that you’d need Dr. Derek Shepherd to ferret it out.

It turns out that Mrs. Aylwood was trying to dislodge Jan from the brambles underneath in an attempt to save her. Then the truth comes out: Karen was Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter. We see, in a 30-year-old flashback, that Mrs. Aylwood’s husband died in World War II and that her relationship with Karen was all the more precious as a result. When Karen was nowhere to be found in the house on the night of a solar eclipse, Mrs. Aylwood went running frantically through the woods, only to discover a church where Karen and her three friends — Tom Collie, John Keller, and, of course, Mary Pierce — were holding a kind of séance. There was a flash of lightning, and the roof of the church fell in a conflagration. Karen was never seen again.

I won’t wholly spoil the circumstances that bring what happened to Karen to light. Indeed, the many, many complications that plagued the movie’s genesis, its plot, and its troubled theatrical release and then rerelease have been well documented. All that you really need to know is that the original novel and the early versions of the film culminated in the appearance of an insectoid extraterrestrial creature that looks as if someone took an action figure from Alien, covered it in Christmas lights, and made a stop-motion movie of it with a camcorder. Being able to watch these deleted scenes now is worth the price of the DVD alone. Hell, it’s worth the price of buying ten of the DVDs and giving them as Halloween presents to everyone that you know.

Seen from the wizened perch of an older age, the movie does not bear the same effect that it had on me as a child, of course. But the uncanny thing is that the movie does happen to be genuinely disturbing in many ways, not least for its odd composition and the haphazard, hapless ways in which various plotlines veer off or are dropped as the story deems “necessary.” Likely as a result of the plagued editing process, some of the oddest moments seem to be from a different movie entirely. In a particularly hilarious early scene in which Jan’s father, a musician of inexplicable vocation, says, “I have a very soft touch late at night,” revealing himself to his family and the real-estate agent as a total lech for no reason. During a big dirt-biking scene, while Michael races around the track, Ellie feels a premonition and tells Jan to move from where she is standing; soon enough, the space where Jan once stood is the site of an accident that would have killed her. No satisfying explanation is ever given for these premonitions; for all we know, Ellie is just an early follower of Slender Man.

A subplot involving John Keller and Tom Collie, cohorts of the séance gone awry, pits them as aggressor and lackey, respectively. Keller lives in an even more lugubrious mansion than Jan’s house and seems to do nothing but brood by a gigantic fire. Collie spends several scenes of the movie creeping up on Jan because he thinks that she’s Karen come back from the dead; at one point, when Jan seeks him out in the woods, he seems to be basically living in Carcosa.

Characters appear in locations where they would never otherwise appear, simply because the plot requires it; the usual considerations of jobs and school are almost wholly absent. Jan’s voice bears an unmistakable midwestern accent and is delivered in an even shriek of panic the entire film, though Johnson’s earnest delivery keeps us on Jan’s side. The ending of the theatrical rerelease version — now the official DVD version — is so abrupt that we feel like the entire movie was but a fever-dream.

And that’s what The Watcher in the Woods feels like now: the specter of some long-ago mixture of stark images that was initially delivered to us at too impressionable an age. But that might be one of the great lessons of rewatching it now: Some of the things that scared us the most as kids can at least become something legitimately entertaining — especially if you add aliens.