Monday, June 27, 2016

Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade Shines On
The film Footlight Parade (1933), is the kind of movie musical that went extinct long ago.  The film was directed by Lloyd Bacon and choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley.  Berkeley had a distinct style to his choreography and this film typified this style.  It is worth revisiting this film to see how a simple storyline with lots of eye candy can be just as entertaining as a film like Spiderman 3.  Few musicals in the last decade have been successful and they are constructed far differently from the musical comedies of the 1930s and 40s.  This movie also follows a common storyline of musicals at that time which is a live, theatrically produced stage musical is produced and problems with the actors and director ensue.  Released just one year before the Hays Code took effect, this “pre-code” film is worth revisiting as Berkeley’s musical numbers still seem racy even by today’s standards.
Footlight Parade follows the story of Chester Kent played by James Cagney, who is hired to produce “prologues” which are live performances that precede the showing of the main feature at movie houses in the 1930s.  Movies had killed musical theater, talkies had killed silent film stars and it all wiped out vaudeville.  The prologues were away to keep the live performers on stage.  Kent is forced in a race against time, romance and competition to produce several different productions in a short period of time.  If he is successful he will win a contract with a major film exhibitor to continue producing even more productions in the future.  While the musical numbers do little to progress the storyline (they never did in movie musicals of the era), they keep the pace moving right along.  This was Cagney’s first movie musical debut and was one of only three that he ever did.  The cast is rounded out by Warner Brothers stars Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler in the lead roles.                The concept of each prologue is that it is all taking place on the stage of movie houses.  The most familiar of the dance sequences or prologues is called “By a Waterfall.”  The musical number involves a large pool with rockscaped waterslides and women in skimpy costumes.  The scene features underwater dance sequences, akin to synchronized swimming.   The camera shoots the girls dancing underwater with shots through glass from the side of the pool and under the pool.  The number culminates in a giant three-story human fountain decorated with women in bathing suits and swimming caps standing on revolving platforms that turn counter to each other.  The camera slowly moves back revealing the massive living fountain.  Through the synchronized movement of the chorus girls legs and arms, geometric patterns abound within the inspired choreography.  Kent succeeds in pulling off a production number that had the audience within the movie giving the number a standing ovation.  While in reality audiences in 1933 gave this a standing ovation during its premiere. 
  One also wonders how this number could ever take place on a stage if it were truly staged in the way it is produced in the film.  The cinema allows the traditional nature of the theater to be pushed beyond its own boundaries.  Berkeley captures the choreography from overhead.  The camera can also capture close-ups of the “beautiful faces” of the chorus girls in the prologues.  It was considered rather revolutionary that Berkeley filmed these sequences using close-ups, which were rarely seen on film in those days.  
What makes Footlight Parade truly cinematic is that the camera is constantly moving through space as these various production numbers are being filmed by the camera.  The camera is never a static observer of the action.  Quite often, the camera itself moves past the smiling chorus girls.  The audience is often placed right in the middle of the action, in some scenes, underwater with the action.  A key sequence of choreography captured on film is during the “By A Waterfall” sequence when the camera begins with close ups of the chorus girls faces, then as the camera dollies backwards, a gigantic human-fountain is revealed to the camera.  This moment is reported to have brought standing ovations from the movie audiences.  For someone today, even viewing this moment on a television in your living room, you can relive the sense of awe that first audiences must have felt.  This same human-fountain was also chosen to be featured in The Great Movie Ride at the Disney/MGM Studios.
Additionally, this sequence of “By a Waterfall,” features characters who are dancing within their reality.  The characters are all performers putting on a show within the show.  The scene is not portrayed as some abstract art; but it is the actual performance of these characters for the audience that came to see the movie which followed the prologue.  Things such as the romantic leads falling in love with each other and fact that all the characters do is live and breathe performing is presented in a stylized manner.  The fact that they are seen rehearsing and then performing this production numbers is quite realistically portrayed.   
Another key musical sequence from the film is “Shanghai Lil,” which follows an American sailor trying to find his girlfriend around town in Shanghai before he has to set sail back to the USA.  In the patriotic finale, Kent who had to fill in for the lead, joins the marching troops and groups of “big name” performers create the American flag, an image of FDR, and an American eagle.  This end sequence is shot from overhead and is achieved through choreography and the use of color boards held over their heads to form patterns and pictures.   This number is also reflective of Warner Brothers’ sensibilities and pro-FDR stance at the time, which is not something you’d likely see in the MGM musicals of the day.
Once again, this number presents us with moving imagery that would not be possible in still photography.  The movie camera allows us to be right in the middle of this production in such a way that even a live audience could not be part of.  From the camera following Kent on his search for Keeler’s character of Shanghai Lil to their big tap dance number to the patriotic finale, the movement is what keeps our attention.  Just like in the “By a Waterfall” prologue, the characters in the film are again performing for a live audience.  Their reality is what the audience is watching.  And by audience, it is meant the audience within the film as well as the movie’s.   This movie reflects much of the close connection that movies had with the stage, to the point that most of the early movie musical comedies revolved around the theater.  
The other prominent musical number in the film is called “The Honeymoon Hotel.”  This number is also very revealing as being “pre-code.”  It revolves around a hotel where there is nothing but couples staying on their wedding nights.  A young Billy Barty keeps popping up in all of their rooms.  Women sing about being nervous since it is, after all, their wedding night.  By today’s rating standards, this film would not likely even garner a G rating.  Between this musical number and all of Berkeley’s close-ups of the girl’s backsides, it was clear this movie was made for adult audiences.  The VHS release of this movie also contains a cartoon with bug characters also acting out the “Honeymoon Hotel” song.  It is equally provocative and disturbing.
As quoted from the Bright Lights Film Journal, “Warner’s pre-Code films work from the social and sexual realities of their time, and provide, even today, the kind of thrills unimaginable in a modern studio system dedicated to capitalist propaganda and status-quo apologizing.”  Footlight Parade features cleavage, prostitutes, an inter-racial bar and even an opium den.  Some today might describe it as a sex-musical-comedy, but regardless, it is all in fun.  It could be concluded that the Hays Code brought on much more of a conservative attitude towards entertainment that did not exist before it’s creation.  Vaudeville acts, which often contained adult themes and humor were still fresh in the minds of the audiences at the time of Footlight Parade’s release.  The storyline, though simplistic, is also as entertaining as the musical numbers.  The film is considered by many as being Berkeley’s best work, if nothing else, it is some of his most creative.  In 1988, the U.S. Library of Congress established the National Film Registry to preserve film deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important."  There is a good reason why this film was chosen to be added to the National Film Registry in 1992, it tells us a lot about the world of filmmaking and audience’s taste in 1933. The other reason is that it is a classic, period.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Buffalo '66 (1998)

I went with my buddy Dave to see this film when it came out. I think I had seen a trailer for it somewhere and it looked intriguing. Mostly, Christina Ricci was the appeal for me. We really had no idea what to expect. I walked out of the theater after the movie and had a new top 5 movie on my list. The film is darkly comedic, with Gallo channeling Ozu, Welles and Capra, yes Frank Capra!

Billy Brown is released from prison after taking the fall for a petty crime he didn't commit. He was forced to take the fall in exchange for defaulting on his payment for a bet he made with a bookie on a Buffalo Bill's game. As we follow him through his day after being released from jail, the audience is given some insight into his background from his ineffectual mother, his love of bowling to his obsession over a woman that was barely aware of his existence. Forced into his day of adventures is Christina Ricci, who is essentially kidnapped by Billy and falls into Stockholm Syndrome. The plot builds as Billy plans to get his revenge on Scott Wood, the QB responsible for losing the football game that cost Billy the $10,000 and landed him in jail. Roger Ebert hated The Brown Bunny, Vincent Gallo's follow up to his 1998 masterpiece, Buffalo '66. But what did Ebert have to say about this film? He actually gave it 3 stars! The movie is not for everyone but has so many redeeming qualities it's impossible to not find something to love. What other film has Ben Gazzara, Anjelica Huston, Rosanna Arquette, Jan-Michael Vincent AND Mickey Rourke?!

And now my original 2006 essay on the film:

Buffalo ‘66, the Art Film

Vincent Gallo’s 1998 feature length debut, Buffalo ‘66 is considered by many to be an indie classic.  An indie film is described by as a film that is produced and distributed without major studio financing.  These indie or independent films are typically categorized as art films.  This essay will address the ways in which scenes of Buffalo ‘66 reflect the definition of an art film by the film theorist David Bordwell.
In Bordwell’s article, “The Cinema as a Mod of Film Practice,” he states that the art film defines itself explicitly against the classical narrative mode of cause and effect linkage of events.  Instead, art films typically feature a looser linkage and a deeper study into what motivates that loosening of cause and effect events. (Braudy 776)  This idea is prevalent throughout Buffalo ‘66 as we join Billy Brown just as he is released from prison and follow him through the next 10 hours or so of his life. 
A specific example from the film that supports Bordwell’s idea would be when Billy finally ends up at the dance studio where he tries to use their bathroom to relieve himself after trying unsuccessfully for the first 10 minutes of the film to find somewhere to go, while in the hallway, he borrows a quarter from Layla to use the phone, who is on her way to the bathroom.  We then overhear his conversation with his mother explaining that he just flew in for one day with his wife, who his parents have never met.  She insists on Billy bringing his new wife to the house to meet them.  He reluctantly agrees which results in him deciding to kidnap Layla as she comes back out of the restroom.  This is not the typical cause and effect sequence that a regular narrative driven film would have.  First, we are not sure what his true intentions are with Layla.  Is he going to rape her, rob her and steal her car or what?  After all, Billy was just released from prison and we do not know what he was in there for.  There are several minutes of uneasiness as we see and hear Billy treat Layla in a violent way.  This includes lines like Billy telling Layla if she doesn’t do what he says he’ll take a bite of her cheek and shit her out.  Up to that point we are led to believe that his intentions are of something unpleasant.  It’s not until they arrive at his parent’s house that Billy explains to Layla that he just plans on using her as his wife to impress his parents.  This form of character interaction is right at home in an art film but would not fit into the regular Hollywood narrative style.
Another example is when Billy and Layla arrive at his parent’s home.  The audience would expect the parents to be happy to finally see their new daughter-in-law and son who has been away.  This concept is immediately thrown out the window when Billy’s father, Jimmy, answers the door and immediately yells to his wife that her “son” is here.  She welcomes him and Layla in.  The next scene shows all four people sitting around a square table in silence.  With the lack of sound and body language, we can see that the situation is uncomfortable.  This goes against the traditional narrative notion where we would have expected a family excited to see Billy and his new bride.
Bordwell states that the art cinema motivates its narratives by two principles: realism and authorial expressivity.  Realism is presented in real locations, complex psychological characteristics, real problems and often sexual situations. (Braudy 776)  In Buffalo ‘66, realism is almost always constant.  The settings all appear to be the real thing.  Much like the neo-realistic films of the past, this movie is shot on location in Buffalo, New York.  There is virtually no hint of any studio artifice in the film.
Bordwell notes the difference between art film characters and mainstream cinema.  While in Hollywood films, the protagonist shoots directly for the target; in art films, the protagonist often lacks a goal and slides passively from one situation to another.  (Braudy 776)  This can be found in this film as the character of Billy begins the movie with no real direction.  His first goal seems to be reuniting with his parents which has disastrous results.  Billy then moves toward the goal of murdering Scott Wood, the football player who made him lose $10,000 on a bet.  There is no traditional Hollywood storyline following Billy, the protagonist, on the usual story arch.  Billy does exhibit his problems interacting with his parents.  When Billy and Layla arrive at his parent’s home for dinner, he has a breakdown on the porch before ringing the doorbell.  We witness the flood of negative emotion that seems to envelope him after returning home.  This also ties into Bordwell’s concept of the hero in art films typically being supersensitive individuals who are on the edge of a breakdown.  There is a reoccurring realization of the anguish of ordinary living.  This is further illustrated by several flashbacks that Billy has to his childhood.  One flashback recalls when Billy ate chocolate and learned that he was allergic which resulted in his face turning red and swelling.  The other flashback is when Billy’s father Jimmy kills his puppy Bingo in front of him after the puppy peed in the house for the last time.  These flashbacks illustrate the inner turmoil of our protagonist.
In art films, Bordwell also notes that violations of classical conceptions of space and time are justified by the complex characters found in the films.  These films often have plot manipulations of the story order.  Bazin, the man considered the first major critic of art cinema also acknowledged the loose, accidental narrative structure of art films and praised it. (Braudy 418)  In Buffalo ‘66, we see an example of the classical conception of time when in the middle of the film, at the start of the second act, we are taken back in time and shown why Billy was placed in jail.  Unlike the earlier mentioned flashbacks, which were also shot in 16mm as opposed to the 35mm of the rest of the film, the prison scene is shot in 35mm.  During this section of film we learn that he made his bad bet on Buffalo Bills winning the Super Bowl.  A bet which he loses and as a result is forced by his bookie to admit to a crime he didn’t commit.  It is due to all of this that Billy creates such contempt for Scott Wood, the player who lost the Super Bowl.  Following this scene we are abruptly placed back into the present.  Since this flashback is essential to the storyline, the audience is quick to forgive its disruptive nature as we delve deeper into Billy’s world.  Also, the childhood flashbacks are shot in a home-movie style giving the audience the idea that these are Billy’s memories which may not be completely reliable.  The prison flashback is played to appear much more factual since it was filmed like the rest of this film.
            As mentioned earlier, Bordwell also notes the authorial expressivity found in art cinema.  He states that art films are the work of expressive individuals.  These films often made by individuals who include autobiographical content to their movies.  This was true of Fellini, Truffaut and in this case, Vincent Gallo. (Braudy 777)  The movie commonly referred to as a semi-autobiographical movie.  Gallo himself denounces the idea that film was even remotely autobiographical other the parents in the film being similar to his own.  He is afraid that people will think he really did not really create the script and merely played himself in the film.  Gallo insists that he really did write the screenplay and those performances in the movie were acted.  The film was not intended to be some re-enacted documentary of his life. 
Following right in line with Bordwell’s beliefs, Buffalo ‘66 is able takes advantage of its freedom that Hollywood films do not.  For example, in a sequence taking place around a dinner table of a Hollywood film, the camera would either be fixed at the end of the table with people sitting around the table facing the camera and/or the director would present many close ups of peoples faces as they engage in conversation.  This film turns that notion on its head.  Billy, Layla and his parents each sit on a side of the square dinner table.  As the conversation ensues, the camera takes the place of each person at the table so that no more than three characters are ever seen at a time while they are sitting.  By filming the sequence in this way, the audience is an active participant at the dinner table of this dysfunctional family.  This clearly violates the classical conception of the camera objectively filming the sequence and it works brilliantly.  It has been said that this scene was Gallo’s homage to Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese filmmaker who is known for his static visual style.
In art films, Bordwell states that authorial commentary is showcased by any breakdown of the motivation of cinematic space and time by cause-effect logic. (Braudy 778) These can be portrayed by things such as enigmas or the puzzle of deciphering just who is telling the story, why the story is being told or what is is being told in the film.  This is not something typically found in classic Hollywood cinema. 
Gallo provides his authorial commentary with a sort of flash forward.  We follow Billy as he leaves Layla in the motel and heads for the strip club that Scott Wood owns with the intent to kill him.  Billy makes one last phone call to his only friend Goon to give him the combination to his bowling locker and says goodbye.  We then follow him in the club which plays in slow motion.  He then finds Scott Wood and shoots him in the forehead and then turns the gun on himself.  This scene is played in a series of frozen shots referred to as “bullet time,” “whereby the passage of time is displayed as extremely slow or frozen moments in order to allow a viewer to observe imperceptibly fast events.” (“bullet-time”) We then cut to Billy’s parents at his graveside, with his mother listening to the latest Buffalo Bills football game on a portable radio and his father sitting next to her, complaining about the cold weather.  The two quickly get up and leave, seemingly unfazed over the death of their son.  Suddenly, we see that this was Billy’s imagined version of the scenario.  He decides against killing Scott Wood and then walks out of the club and goes back to Layla in the motel.  This sequence functions perfectly to stress Gallo’s authorial presence over the film.  He makes us believe we are seeing the fate of the character when it is changed on us to the reality of the situation.  In addition, we are allowed to share in Billy’s imagined consequences of his actions.
One thing that Bordwell does not address in his theory but seems to be ever present in art films of today is the use of lesser known music that was not created new for the film.  In Buffalo ‘66, Gallo chose to use several songs by the band Yes.  The music of Yes uses symphonic and other classical structures blended with rock.  Their music is instrumentally driven which allows for a surreal soundtrack during the imagined strip club murder/suicide scenario of Billy.  Directors like Quentin Tarantino have been quite successful in assembling music that spans the decades and genres to use for his soundtracks, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are great examples of this.  It has become a common staple of many art films.
Bordwell’s ideas of art film are best culminated in this statement, “…we are to watch less for the tale than the telling, that life lacks the neatness of art and this art knows it.” (Braudy 780)  In Buffalo ‘66, Bordwell’s vision of the art film is firmly upheld through the storytelling style of Vincent Gallo.  Bordwell makes the case for the place of the art film in the cinematic canon.  This film again proves the value of art cinema which provides possibilities for movies that do not exist in classic Hollywood cinema.


Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism, sixth edition. Oxford UP, 2004.

Buffalo ‘66. Dir. Vincent Gallo. Perf. Vincent Gallo and Christina Ricci. 1998. DVD. Lions Gate Films, 1999.

“bullet-time.” Wikipedia. 3 March 2006. 3 March 2006

 “Independent Film.” Wikipedia. 6 March 2006. 11 March 2006

Kaufman, Anthony. “writing.” November 2001. 11 March 2006

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Watcher In The Woods (1980)

The Watcher in the Woods – Disney Does Horror

 The family’s role in the horror film dates back to the creation of the first horror movies.  Many even cite the family connection in the Frankenstein films.  Robin Wood’s structuralist borrowing of the psychoanalytic-political theory of repression, outlined in An Introduction to the American Horror Film will provide us with our interpretive framework.  Of particular significance to Wood is horror’s portrayal of the family and the family’s position in maintaining dominant social and cultural norms, namely those of patriarchy and capitalism.  In the 1970s there was an explosion of horror films revolving around the family and just about every studio attempted one. As Wood points out, from 1959’s Psycho on, Hollywood has produced horror films that are “both American and familial.”  Watcher in the Wood continues that tradition. 
By the end of the 1970s and early 80s, Walt Disney Productions struggled as it attempted to maintain its image of wholesome family entertainment.  It still attempted to maintain its present with the world wide movie going audience.  During this same period films like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were breaking box office records and these were movies that Disney could  have made but didn’t because it of its blind allegiance to making only G-rated fare.  When the new decade of the 1980s arrived, Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law had taken over the leadership reins of the company.  He realized that Disney needed to venture in more mature filmmaking, but it was a fine line that the company was willing to walk as it developed PG films.  In order to produce big-budget films, the studio did two co-productions with Paramount Studios, Popeye (1980) and Dragonslayer (1980).  Neither of these films was very successful and Disney once again decided to venture into film production solo.  One way that the company saw the possibility to bring in some box office revenue was to take advantage of the developing audience for the newest brand of horror films like Friday the 13th and Halloween.  Instead of attempting a slasher film, Disney instead followed the trend of family horror films but with The Watcher in the Woods (1981).
In focusing on the family in horror, it is appropriate to discuss the contested nature of “family”. The family is by no means a universal, static, or tangible grouping; it exists as a complex network of relationships. It is the social institution entrusted with the reproductive process – reproduction of the species, along with reproduction of cultural, social and psychic norms. Though “the family” is frequently conceptualized as a universal, fixed unit (i.e. the nuclear family), this is an essentially ideological construction, conflicting with the reality of its diverse and changing nature. It is probably more correct to talk of “families”, as “the family” in a unitary sense doesn’t really exist. However, family is a useful concept for the way in which it informs and provides meaning to discursive and cultural formations. The inherently Western nature of the family in this sense, and its function within capitalist superstructures requires us to view developments and themes in the horror genre with a degree of cultural specificity. (Woods)
This film depicts an American family moving to England into an old mansion with Bette Davis as the house caretaker.  The somewhat confusing plot revolves around the fact that Davis’s daughter disappeared in the surrounding woods one night and has never been seen again.  Depending on the source, it has been said that Disney had issues with how much horror and frights could be depicted in a film produced under their name.  This film deals with the occult and supernatural, all themes that had never been attempted by the studio before this time.  They also struggled with how to produce a family friendly film about a family dealing with terrifying events befalling them.  With a conclusion that is as unfair as it is nonsensical, The Watcher in the Woods is its own worst enemy: far better as a curiosity during a time when Disney was offering the worst mainstream movies the world has ever known than as a horror film the whole family can enjoy.
The film reflects the problem of Disney trying out horror that is still Disney-like.  Elements of terror go back as far as their version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  When the evil stepmother transforms herself into a hag, audiences were said to have wet their pants.  Two years after The Watcher in the Woods, Disney took a second stab at the genre with Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on the Ray Bradbury book.  This film also suffered a similar fate in that it was re-edited and had new material shot for it after the production had wrapped.  The film did poorly box office, not only in its abbreviated initial release but also the re-cut version that attempted to clarify the ending.  Internationally, the film did not appear to make much of a profit, if any.
The Watcher in the Woods was initially released in the United States on April 17, 1980.  After being pulled from theaters and re-edited, it was re-released on October 7, 1981 to coincide with the Halloween season.  In the USA the film grossed only $5 million.  The film was released internationally, specifically in France on April 7, 1982 and in Japan on September 11, 1982.  Other countries which distributed the film were Poland, Italy, Spain, West Germany and Finland.  Reactions internationally were equally poor, though actual box office figures were not obtainable.  
The film was directed by an English director, John Hough who had worked with Disney on two prior mystery/sci-fi/whatever films; Escape from Witch Mountain and its sequel, Return to Witch Mountain.  One can easily find similarities between this atmospheric ghost tale with Australia’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) which was released in the USA in 1979 just as this film went into production.  Director John Hough, no doubt found some inspiration in Peter Weir’s film which carries a similar “thriller” theme.  He also brought his real life experiences as an Englishman to conveying just how frightening the English countryside can be.
Some questions that stand to be asked are why Disney chose a British director for the film but ultimately took him off and replaced him with an American studio guy from the TV department to complete the final version of the film?  Did they want the film to appeal to international audiences or did they want someone that could bring the feeling of The Haunting of Hill House to the movie.  (Which, incidentally, is the same house used for this production.)  If they were trying to compete with storylines about haunted houses, then the film could be considered a rip off of The Shining or The Amityville Horror. At the start of the film, it is hinted that the house may be haunted.  As the father says what self respecting old English house would be without [a ghost]. There is no ghost, but there is Bette Davis, who is quite frightening in her appearance at this late stage in her film career.  The girls then joke about a witch living somewhere in the woods – another blatant attempt to tell the audience what to be afraid of. 
We ultimately find out that the house and the woods surrounding it are not the culprit of the horror but it is instead some other supernatural power terrorizing the family.  The original cut of the film was to feature a climatic moment where the “Watcher” returns and takes the female blonde lead back to his spaceship where she finds the missing girl and somehow brings her back home.  This ending was never completed and the ending was dramatically altered to one where the “Watcher” is never presented on screen.
            As we address the idea of Disney’s family horror film, it is worthwhile noting Ann Douglas’s definition of the concept:
The genre of “family horror” records the strange forms and transformations into which the contemporary middle-class family falls: its subject is the splitting of the atom of the nuclear family. This fictional family is twice nuclear. It consists of the now-classic small nucleus of parents and one or two children. It represents the first American families parented by young adults who were themselves born just before and after the official inauguration of the nuclear age at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and who are consciously bringing children into an atomic world. In these thrillers, parental characters, like many of the authors who create them, are baby-boomers, creatures of the sixties, dramatized and imagined as they begin families in the seventies and eighties: in other words they are protagonists of pressing, intricate and culturally telling contradictions.  (Douglas)

Watcher features the middle class American family leaving the comforts of the United States to live life in jolly ole’ England.  The father of the family leaves early on in the film for a business trip, leaving his wife and two daughters with Ms. Aylwood.  The parents are basically useless and at a loss for how to manage their situation.  It is only via the children that a breakthrough is made and the lost daughter of Ms. Aylwood is recovered.  There is the stereotypical “innocent” little girl, Ellie and the “pretty” older blonde sister, Jan.  Jan’s blonde hair is important because Ms. Aylwood’s daughter was also a blonde and she both reminds Ms. Aylwood of her daughter and also helps Jan intercede in finding Karen. The Americans are the foreigners and are the ones who discover the other foreigner who has been terrorizing the village.
Wood describes two types of horror films; reactionary and apocalyptic.  Watcher uses an unseen monster throughout the film.  This ambiguous form of monster falls right into her definition of the “return of the repressed.”  The missing girl in the film originally disappears while participating in a séance with other teenagers.  Teenagers are traditionally portrayed as repressing sexual tendencies and are punished for it.  The missing girl, Karen, is dressed in white was blind folded with a white handkerchief and stood in the middle of the séance circle when she was taken.  This concept in itself touches on themes of sadomasochism. The monster kidnapping her can be interpreted through Woods’ definition of the monster as a punishment for the possibility of sexual expression on Karen’s part, though this is never something shown or discussed in the film text.  Jan also has what appears to be a love interest, a young man she meets after moving to England.  There is not a hint of sexuality between them.  No kissing, hugging or romantic moments. 
            Tony Williams has also written extensively about the American horror film.  He describes these films as embodying "inevitable psychological tensions of an authoritarian family situation, in which people are molded into certain roles."  The adults in this film are portrayed as particularly inept thus leaving it up to the children to take control of the situation.  The children are not the cause of the horror such as in films like The Exorcist or The Omen, but they are the ones victimized most by the monster such as in a film like Poltergeist.
            In making their first horror film, Disney was able to maintain some of their reputation for a family film.  There is no sex, foul language or significant acts of violence.  Disney was and remains the studio to produce films for the family audience.  However, the conventions of the typical American horror film are not compatible with Disney dominant conventions both in 1980 and even present day.  Yes, this film does have a happy ending but the overall theme of the film is a dark one.  The occult, séances, and extraterrestrial alien creatures are not stock characters for a Disney film.  Disney finally realized that if they wanted to maintain the integrity of the Disney brand but still be able to compete at the box office, a differently named production company would need to be created.  Once Touchstone Pictures came on the scene with the release of Splash (1984), they finally could make a competitive and financially successful film.  Interestingly, there were no future attempts at horror in the ways that were attempted with both Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes.


Digital Cinema. “The Mystery, Behind the Mystery.” 28 March 28, 2007.

Douglas, Ann, “The Dream of the Wise Child: Freud's 'Family Romance Revisited in Contemporary Narratives of Horror,” Prospect, 9 (1984), p. 293.

Hollis, Richard and Brian Sibley. The Disney Studio Story. Crown, New York. 1988.

Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films.  3rd Edition. Hyperion, New York. 1995. p. 273, 317.

Naha , Ed. "Something Wicked This Way Comes." Twilight Zone Magazine June 1983.

The Watcher in the Woods Review

Wood, Robin (1979) “An Introduction to the American Horror Film”. The American Nightmare. Toronto: Festival of Festivals