This Live-Action Disney Movie Remains the Studio’s Only True Horror Film

The Big Picture

  • The Watcher in the Woods
    has a chilling atmosphere despite Disney’s attempts to tone it down for a family-friendly audience.
  • The movie’s ending went through multiple reshoots and is widely considered rushed and unsatisfying.
  • The original ending included more sci-fi elements but was also poorly received and criticized as jarring and nonsensical.


Screen legend Bette Davis led Disney’s valiant but flawed attempt at the horror genre. The Watcher in the Woods began development in the late-1970s after the rights were secured to Florence Engel Randall’s young adult novel. Turmoil plagued the filming process, with producers often intervening to tone down the movie, much to the frustrations of director John Hough. At the time, Hough was best known for the 1973 movie The Legend of Hell House,a haunted house horror certainly not for younger audiences. With Disney wanting to maintain their family-friendly approach, The Watcher in the Woods could not afford to go too dark. Nevertheless, there is an unsettling atmosphere to the film, and while there is no bad language, violence, or sexual content, it is chilling from the first minute. Hough uses nerve-shredding POV shots to suggest a dangerous presence nearby with malignant intentions for the unsuspecting protagonists. For all its high points, the movie was not well-received at the time of its release, and several different endings were shot to try and rectify the audience’s dissatisfaction. Since then, it has developed a cult following, but many still remain understandably unhappy with the movie’s conclusion.


The Watcher in the Woods

When a family moves to a country home, the young girls experience strange happenings that have a link to an occult event years past.

Release Date
October 9, 1981

Director
John Hough , Vincent McEveety

Cast
Bette Davis , Lynn-Holly Johnson , Kyle Richards , Carroll Baker , david mccallum , Benedict Taylor

Runtime
84 minutes


What Is ‘The Watcher in the Woods’ About?

Bette Davis stars as the mysterious Mrs. Aylwood who takes the American Curtis family into her English manor. Soon, Mrs. Aylwood is drawn to the family’s two daughters, Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and Ellie (Kyle Richards). Jan bears a striking resemblance to her missing daughter Karen, while Ellie appears to have a strange connection to the spirit world. Mrs. Aylwood still believes Karen to be alive, and she recounts to Jan how she went missing. There are plenty of suspicious characters who were all involved in Karen’s disappearance, including Tom (Richard Pasco), John (Ian Bannen), and Mary (Frances Cuka).


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They were each present at a chapel for a test of courage in which Karen was blindfolded and seemingly vanished into thin air when a fire broke out. Davis portrays Mrs. Aylwood as suspicious, with a short temper and an uncomfortable magnetism to the Curtis daughters. The mystery the movie conjures up is genuinely compelling, and the near-constant suggestion that Jan is being followed makes everybody a suspect. The otherworldly elements are not especially apparent for the majority of the movie, but the reiteration of the enigmatic Watcher as well as Ellie’s unusual abilities do provide some suggestions of the supernatural.

‘The Watcher in the Woods’ Has Multiple Alternate Endings


The ending of The Watcher in the Woods that is regarded most highly sees the test of courage that Tom, John, and Mary put Karen through re-created with Jan taking Karen’s place. A solar eclipse reoccurs, and the Watcher is shown to be a bright beam of light which manifests before everybody. Ellie, who runs into the chapel during the recreation, becomes possessed by the Watcher, who reveals itself to be a creature from an alternate dimension who accidentally switched places with Karen when she first disappeared and has been inhabiting near the manor ever since. All of this is incredibly rushed and has virtually no emotional payoff when the plan works and Karen is returned. Even a long-awaited embrace between Karen and Mrs. Aylwood fails to fulfill all the promises the movie set up.


This was the ending that was on the VHS/DVD releases of the film, but it was actually the third ending to be shot. Hough was also not present for this ending, and Vincent McEveety directed it, though he was never credited. This alternate ending was crafted after the movie was pulled from theaters due to backlash, forcing reshoots to commence. Most audiences will be familiar with this ending, and it is arguably the most fitting despite McEveety’s hasty approach. The Watcher’s true form is never revealed, and the beam of light which manifests is not very menacing and cheapens the effective POV shots which had come before. It feels frustratingly lazy to have Ellie practically explain everything when she is possessed, and even then it makes little sense when considering the rest of the film.

The Original ‘Watcher in the Woods’ Ending Had More Sci-Fi Elements, but No One Liked it

A close-up of Lynn-Holly Johnson looking frightened in The Watcher in the Woods
Image via Walt Disney Pictures


Hough’s original ending shoehorned in a more obvious sci-fi element. Hough intended to show the Watcher in its true form, as a flying insect-like alien who enters the chapel and attacks the group. The design was completed by Harrison Ellenshaw, and even Hough admitted he was disappointed by the design, confessing that it undid all of his good work in the movie. Hough was not the only crew member dissatisfied as visual effect artist Sam Nicholson also expressed displeasure with this ending. Aside from the cheesy appearance of the Watcher, this ending still does not work. When the Watcher attacks the chapel, it engulfs Jan and transports her to a spacecraft where Karen is trapped. They hug each other and are immediately transported back to the chapel.


Hardly any dialogue is spoken during this whole sequence, and it is confusing and nonsensical. In comparison to the rest of the film, it is frankly ludicrous as its sudden switch to sci-fi is jarring and senseless. Hough is correct in his admission that the true form of the Watcher undoes the tension and uncertainty which was so strongly executed in the first two-thirds of the film. The visual effects were not even finished when the movie was first released, as it was rushed out to theaters to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Davis’ career.

The Multiple Endings Gave ‘The Watcher in the Woods’ a Bad Reputation


Prior to the official ending, a theatrical ending was briefly shown during the movie’s limited run at the end of 1980. This ending kept in the Watcher’s attack, but instead of showing Jan and Karen’s meeting on the spacecraft, Jan’s mother Helen (Caroll Baker) paces around the chapel begging for answers from the group. Jan eventually returns with Karen and, in an exposition-heavy dialogue exchange, states how Karen was “frozen in time and space.” This is the most amateurish and incomprehensible ending of them all, providing no closure or explanation. It was following this that the movie gained a reputation for not having an ending and thus being incomplete. It was at this point McEveety was brought in to shoot the official ending, which still did not fully satisfy. The movie adaptation changed a lot of plot points from its source material, but the novel ends with Karen still in the Watcher’s world, and Mrs. Aylwood reuniting with her there.


The Watcher in the Woods is a great movie for seventy minutes, but the subpar ending really does stain an otherwise solid watch. The troubled post-production process as well as Disney’s unwanted meddling with the tone leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Disney was obviously being too careful with what they could get away with in a horror movie and did not want to go too far in frightening their younger audiences. Many references to witchcraft were omitted at the request of Disney and an alternate opening scene shot by Hough was also replaced for being too extreme. Perhaps Hough was not the right man for the job Disney wanted, but without the interference, he could have made a much better film. It is a shame that a movie with so much potential feels so incomplete. It is probably best that the audience just thinks up their own ending for this one.


The Watcher in the Woods is not available to stream, but it is available to purchase on DVD on Amazon Prime.


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