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

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