Disney and Buena Vista–not things one typically associates with horror, so yeah I was fully aware of the risks going in. But I’d been meaning to get to The Watcher In The Woods for a long time. Then I saw Lucy McPhee (super early spoilers comin’) mention it on Top 5 Horror Movies With Almost No Deaths. I really like Ms. McPhee and her aesthetics in terms of horror movies. I generally trust her recommendations, and she’s never let me down so…why not?
Plus there’s Bette Davis! How bad could it be?
Well, let’s start there with the fact that it’s certainly not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Really, not even close. Cuz again, Bette Davis. The best description I can give you is part Nancy Drew mystery, part feel-good cosmic horror. If you can imagine H.P. Lovecraft with a happy ending, you’re on the right track, plus the plot itself is actually pretty interesting.
A teenager, Karen Aylwood, disappears. Many years later Karen’s mother, Mrs. Aylwood (hey, is that Bette Davis??) is in need of money, so she rents out her estate and lives in the cottage on the grounds (a cottage that’s nicer than any place I’ve ever lived but whatever). A family moves in with their two daughters, Jan and her younger sister Ellie. Jan looks very much like Karen which arouses Mrs. Aylwood’s curiosity.
The two girls are then haunted by the spirit of someone or something that wants their help with this ill-defined Karen situation. Lots of creepy little incidents start to befall the girls literally the minute they move in. Windows and mirrors crack, Ellie keeps hearing voices and going into paranormal trances, Jan nearly drowns. Good times.
For the most part the acting is decent, and the script is more or less okay. Jan gets a bit shrill here and there, but I’ve made it through worse. Also tricky casting Bette Davis in a character acting role. Cuz she’s Bette Goddamn Davis. Aside from her, the movie, “boasts” figure skater turned actress Lynn-Holly Johnson who would go on to The Spy Who Loved Me and something else I’ve seen her in but can’t for the life of me pin down (shit…this is gonna bug me all night). There’s also a very young Escape From Witch Mountain Kyle Richards and an incidental at best David McCallum (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., NCIS).
And yet, the movie still works on a number of levels. There’s a respectable amount of genuine tension in the race to save/find/help the missing Karen. Mrs. Aylwood is just creepy and secretive enough to keep you guessing. There’s a little bit of a ritualistic, culty, Lovecraftian cosmic weirdness vibe about what actually happened to Karen. Jan’s disappearance when the original ritual is repeated comes as a legit shock. The otherworldly special effects are a little lacking, but the practical effects of The Big Bad work surprisingly well. It’s somewhat Cthulhu-like, just minus, y’know, the despair and madness the goes along with the Elder Gods.
All in all, if you find yourself needing a wee break from death, gore, and dread, give this one a watch.
Oh, and Bette Davis.
Not. A single. One.
Available on YouTube
Wait wait I got it! Lynn-Holly Johnson was in the “Enemy Within” episode of MacGyver! You know, the one where he makes a defibrillator out of two candlesticks and a power cord from a lamp. Whew…I’ll be able to sleep tonight.