East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Fourth Bette Davis Blogathon: The Watcher in the Woods (1980)


My brain is a sieve, and I was almost forgetting today it’s the last day of the Fourth Bette Davis Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
I blame the spring. But all is not lost, and here is my late-night contribution.
Be sure to check out the link above to find a wealth of other posts on the movies of the woman that was called The First Lady of Hollywood.

But then come back here, because this late-night post is filled with things that go bump in the dark: we’ll be talking about Walt Disney’s horror The Watcher in the Woods, from 1980.
The film that was to be Disney’s response to The Exorcist.
I kid you not.

The fans talk about a Disney Dark Age, that stretched from 1970 and 1989 -a time of minor movies and strange choices. After the death of Walt Disney, the studio was looking for new directions, while at the same time trying to re-capture the magic with derivative products.
Many of the titles produced showed a distinctive dark tone. The most notorious of these often downright scary movies was of course The Black Cauldron, from 1985, an adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy novels. And smack in the middle of the Disney Dark Age, the House of Mouse produced a live action movie featuring Bette Davis.
A horror movie.
It was indeed a strange time.

It was the end of the ’70s and horror was making big money. Not only it worked perfectly on the big screen, but it was also a good product for television. Disney could see in which way the market was going, and wanted a piece of the cake.

The Watcher in the Woods would probably be classified today as a folk horror – a story with a countryside or provincial setting, and a dark legend at its core. As many folk horrors it is set in the English countryside.
The plot, courtesy of IMDB:

When a normal American family moves into a beautiful old English house in a wooded area, strange, paranormal appearances befall them in this interesting twist to the well-known haunted-house tale. Their daughter Jan sees, and daughter Ellie hears, the voice of a young teenage girl who mysteriously disappeared during a total solar eclipse decades before…

One sometimes feels that the English countryside exists for the sole purpose of swallowing up “normal American families”…

The movie was directed by John Hough – a man we have already met when we talked about the rather bad Biggles movie he directed in 1986. A solid professional with a career in genre and B movies and a long apprenticeship as second unit director in the series The Avengers, Hough had been hired because the producers were impressed by his work on the adaptation of Richard Matheson’s Hell House in 1973, and was originally to work on a screenplay by legendary British screenwriter Brian Clemens, but Disney found Clemens’ adaptation of the original novel (1976 A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall) to be too dark.

The cast includes a number of well-known British and American actors, such as David McCallum, Carrol Baker, Ian Bannen and Richard Pasco.

Shot in many of the locations that had been used by Robert Wise for his The Haunting, The Watcher in the Woods had a troubled shooting history. The leading role was supposed to go to Diane Lane, that was later replaced by skater-turned-actress Lynn-Holly Johnson.
The script by Brian Clemens having been rejected, the adaptation was passed around among many science fiction writers, including Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The end result was that the novie had, according to special effects designer Harrison Ellenshaw, “roughly 152 possible endings”.
Then, one week into production, Disney decided to make some changes – and what was supposed to be a dark and weird TV movie, “Disney’s response to The Exorcist“, was retooled to be a much tamer big screen movie.

Davies wanted to play her character both as an old lady (she was 72) and as a much younger woman in the flashbacks – but the scenes had to be reshot with Georgina Hale in the role of the young Mrs Aylwood.
Then, the whole final sequence had to be re-shot, because the original finale as shot had been rushed, and was deemed unsatisfactory.

The reason of the rush job on the original ending was that the movie release was to coincide with Bette Davis’ 50th anniversary of her career.
The film was released with a butchered ending, and the opening sequence was also cut. The critics were not kind.
The movie was therefore retired from the cinemas, Mary Poppins was hastily re-released to fill the gap (yes, they replaced a horror about an alien psychic monster kidnapping kids in the English countryside with Mary Poppins), and a new ending was shot by a new director. But the reshoots were bogged down by a Hollywood strike, and the thing got complicated.
A mess, in other words.

Re-watched forty years later, The Watcher in the Woods is a weird, lopsided thing, that mixes horror and science fiction and can’t decide if it’s a proper horror movie or a movie directed at younger audiences.
It would be interesting to see the original version as shot by Hough – while no masterpiece, it would probably hold its own and show some artistic unity.

The Watcher in the Woods is still interesting and worth a watch but alas not a proper way for Bette Davis to celebrate her fiftieth anniversary on screen.

The movie was remade in 2017, featuring Anjelica Huston in the role that had been Bette Davis’, and with a more straightforward horror mood.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

3 thoughts on “The Fourth Bette Davis Blogathon: The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

  1. You know what, it may not be a classic but this was one of my favourite movies growing up. I watched it as an 8 year old at a sleepover and it scared the bejesus out of me.

    You Tube has the original ending which is far creepier (and better) than what they finished the movie with. Have a look (if you haven’t already) and see what you think.


  2. Pingback: THE FOURTH ANNUAL BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HAS ARRIVED – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

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