Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Watcher in the Woods


1980, d. John Hough, Vincent McEveety -- DVD

An elderly woman has given up her estate home to live in the smaller servants quarters in the British countryside.  A family moves into the house, but Mrs. Aylwood, looking at their teenage daughter, is reluctant.  Something about Ellie disturbs the old woman.  Jan, for her part, is likewise unsettled.  Then strange things begin to happen.  Glass cracks, mirrors shatter, wind howls, lighting strikes, horses run wild.  Voices.  Jan's little sister, Ellie begins hearing voices.  There's something wrong in the woods, and a mystery. 

The Watcher in the Woods is a particular subgenre of film that doesn't really exist anymore.  It's an all-ages suspense/mystery.  These were quite prominent in the 1980s,  before frightening children seemed to fall out of favor.  But Watcher isn't horror as it was becoming at that time, it's not gore and disturbing scenes, it's the thrilling intensity of the unknown. 

Watcher is a bit of a cult film, but obviously not one of the larger ones, since I hadn't heard of it until recently. It's a Disney horror movie, and that intones almost a certain level of cheese, which early moments with Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood seem to uphold. But it doesn't take long for the rather earnest tone of the film to win over the viewer and invest them in the mystery that Jan investigates (and seeming supernatural abilities she appears to manifest)  Once one mystery is revealed, the film keeps the viewer rapt as there's still another to discover in order to bring about a resolution.

The finale of the film comes in multiple varieties.  The first brings a happy ending, revealing the supernatural to actually be something more cosmic in design.  It's blindsidingly bizarre and yet absolutely, fantastically 1980 in its execution.  Though enjoyable, the ending skips over addressing some rather important consequences of the events that transpired...what is the fallout on the people who were involved, now that they know what they know?

The DVD has three alternate and extended endings.  The first is shorter, and darker.  It keeps more in the spirit of the horror aspect of the movie, foregoing the cosmic bait and switch.

A second ending pads out the one that accompanies the feature, with more special effects, and a visit to "the Other World".  With more time, it has a more logic to it, however it's less satisfying in a way, it feels more disjointed and separate from what came before.

A third ending, the original ending when the film was rushed into theatres, was reshot to exclude the unfinished special effects.  As a result it's very disjointed and virtually breaks the movie.

Three of these four endings actually work well enough though.  Like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" the film is kind of made better for having all these alternate ways of interpreting what happened.  It allows the audience to have a more visual ending, a darker ending, or one that allows the viewer to use more of their imagination.

I wasn't sure what to expect out of this, but I rather loved it.  It's not campy like I was expecting, and it fuels my jones for 80's aesthetic quite nicely.  It may not be classic cinema, but it is thoroughly entertaining.