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Film / The Watcher in the Woods

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A 1980 live-action Disney film based on the YA novel by Florence Engel Randall, The Watcher In The Woods is a supernatural mystery about a family that moves into an old British manor. Shortly after, the two daughters attract the attention of what appears to be a ghostly presence lurking in the woods surrounding their house. Elder daughter Jan finds herself unraveling a thirty-year-old mystery in order to save her little sister well as another young girl thought lost long ago.

The movie is notable for being a well-done example of a suspenseful thriller, making good use of atmosphere to develop a sense of tension and urgency as the plot unfolds and creating a rather emotionally challenging story while still being accessible to kids (although younger children may find it too scary), while also managing to be quite different from the typical Disney fare of the era. The initial advertising for the film played up this aspect, warning parents that the film was somewhat darker than the typical Disney fare.

The film is also known among fans for its Troubled Production. Due to Disney's rush to release Watcher in time for the fiftieth anniversary of star Bette Davis' film debut, special effects in the climactic final sequence were left unfinished, resulting in derision and disappointment from test audiences. An attempted second ending, minus the special effects, left the resolution so vague that audiences were confused as to what had just happened. Finally, at the last minute, a very different third ending was filmed with a new director; this final version was the one that made it to theaters in 1981. The multiple endings led to a long-running Urban Legend that the original ending had been so terrifying that Disney refused to release it. The two unused endings were later made available as an extra to the remastered Blu-Ray release.

The Movie Contains Examples Of:

  • Adaptational Ugliness: Florence Engel Randall describes the Watcher as a humanoid little girl with long flowing robes; in the original ending of the film, it is a black archangel from outer space with clipped wings and an insect-like face. The new ending, where the Watcher possesses Ellie and has a female voice, is closer to the mark.
  • Another Dimension: Where the Watcher is from, and where Karen went.
  • Arc Symbols: Triangles and circles.
  • Automobile Opening: The opening credits play over scenes of the family driving along a forested road toward Aylwood House, a relatively mundane introduction...until we later realize that the entire sequence is from the point of view of the Watcher.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Partly averted. Karen and the Watcher have returned to where they both belong, Mrs. Aylwood and her daughter are happily reunited, and Karen seems none the worse from her experience. On the other hand, three decades have passed with Karen having not aged while her mother and friends have, leaving the question of her adjusting to being back in a changed world.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: Played with, as the flash of blue light during the eclipse which sets the chapel belfry on fire and exchanges Karen for the Watcher appears to be an example of this but instead turns out to be an interdimensional phenomenon.
  • Circus of Fear: Downplayed, but one of the Mirror Scares mentioned below occurs at the local carnival, and the way the scene in the fun house plays out is certainly frightening enough, especially for younger viewers.
  • Creepy Cathedral: The cinematographer had a field day with the scenes in the ruined chapel, from broken stained-glass windows to disturbing statuary to water-filled coffins to all manner of ominous shadows and angles.
  • Creepy Child: Ellie, when she's possessed by the Watcher. Though the times she keeps nonchalantly insisting she heard Jan (or someone) talking to her, telling her Nerak's name, and so forth, are just as creepy for how she acts as if everything is normal.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Mrs. Aylwood seems to exemplify this at first, but eventually subverts it by being an extremely sad and tragic figure whom the plot centers around.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Tom Colley has shades of this in both his appearance and attitude and the fact he lives in an old hunting lodge on the estate. Like Mrs. Aylwood this too is subverted when he is revealed to be a kindly man who looks after wounded animals, and who was very close to Karen and misses her greatly.
  • Darker and Edgier: It is a suspense-driven mystery horror with several surreally nightmarish imagery and subtle eerieness that goes unexplained until the climax where the cause of the unexplained incidents is a frightening Eldritch Abomination appears, causing the appropriate amount of fear from the onlookers. This storyline contrasts heavily with the usual light-hearted tone of Dinsey as a whole.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The Watcher, in spite of looking like a demonic insect monster with dark coloring and glowing eyes, is ultimately helpful, getting back Karen, with the entire situation being a mistake that it tried years to correct, only attacking to defend itself rather than attacking without provocation.
  • Dark Secret: Karen's disappearance.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: Literally at one point, when the presence of the Watcher spooks the horses Michael, Ellie, and Jan are riding when they try to enter them.
  • Dutch Angle: Made use of quite frequently and effectively, such as the first shot of John Keller's house or looking up into the chapel belfry.
  • Ethereal White Dress: Karen wore one on the last night she was seen. Whenever Jan glimpses her, she is still in the white dress, giving the impression that she's a spirit.
  • Good All Along: As frightening as the Watcher is, in the end it is ultimately a benevolent being who is just as much a victim of circumstance as Karen, and seems as invested in helping Karen as it is in helping itself.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Mrs. Aylwood speaks of her daughter Karen in ways that point to this trope (as does Tom Colley), and she also sees similarities in Jan (asking her if she is kind and sensitive). Jan is the heroine who must save the day, while Karen is the Damsel in Distress to be saved.
  • Haunted Heroine: Jan and her younger sister Ellie.
  • Haunted House Historian: Mrs. Aylwood, although there are parts of the story she doesn't know which are then supplied by Mary Pierce and Tom Colley.
  • Help Mistaken for Attack: When Jan falls into the pond, Mrs. Aylwood uses a branch to knock away the other sunken branches that Jan is tangled in. From Jan's perspective, she thinks Mrs. Aylwood is trying to hold her under.
  • Initiation Ceremony: When Karen disappeared, it was while being initiated into a "secret club" by the other children.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: John Keller's not a pleasant man at all, but he does harbor massive guilt for what happened to Karen and ultimately joins in setting things right.
  • Jump Scare: Quite a number, one of the best being Karen's image appearing in the coffin in the chapel. A rather fun example is when, immediately after a tense, suspenseful scene of exposition, the camera cuts to a monster dummy with a Nightmare Face in the carnival fun house that Jan and Michael are visiting. Immediately afterward Michael lampshades the trope with "It works every time!"
  • Large Ham: John Keller's the one character who overacts in every scene he appears, as both a teenager and an adult.
  • Mirror Scare: Jan sees a blindfolded girl in a mirror, then again in a pool of water, and finally at a carnival's house of mirrors attraction.
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: Tom Colley, and also Mrs. Aylwood. See also Not What It Looks Like.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: There are a lot of tense moments when nothing really happens, but you know something is there, watching.
  • Not What It Looks Like:
    • After Jan falls in the pond and gets caught in the branches, Mrs. Aylwood shows up with a pole and seems to be trying to force her down in the water so she'll drown (aided by some particularly grim and threatening shots of her face). It turns out she was trying to help, and that in fact by dislodging her from the branches, she saved Jan's life.
    • Tom Colley is also played up as a creepy and crazy hermit through one scene where he confronts and chases Jan in the chapel and another where, after she finds his hunting lodge full of suspended dead animals, he appears to try and menace her. But it turns out the animals are ones he found and could not save like the other strays and intended to bury, while both times he confronted her he had mistaken her for Karen and wanted to prove if she was real or a ghost.
  • Now Do It Again, Backwards: To find Karen the original three friends who tried to initiate her into their club must reenact the seance, with Jan standing in for Karen, only this time continue it until the initial switch between Karen and the Watcher is reversed.
  • Ominous Music Box Tune: The tune itself isn't particularly upsetting, but the scene where the box entrances Ellie and briefly possesses her is rather unsettling.
  • Once More, with Clarity: When Ellie finds her eclipse-watching glasses and randomly makes comments similar to those she made while in a trance, Jan flashes back to them, as well as to the strange visions she'd seen, the pieces of the stained-glass windows, and so forth to put all the clues together to solve the mystery.
  • Race Against the Clock: To recreate and complete the initiation ceremony before the eclipse ends. This is particularly critical because not only do eclipses happen rarely, but the amount of time between them means if the chance is missed this time, the three friends (and for that matter, Mrs. Aylwood) will be dead by the next eclipse. Which means the ceremony cannot be recreated and Karen not be reunited with her mother.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: Nerak.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Karen's friends must reenact their initiation ceremony, but this time not break the circle, so that the switch can be done and their friend can be returned home to her mother to live out her life.
  • Shout-Out: The solar eclipse resembles the one from "The Rite of Spring" segment in Fantasia.
  • Supernatural-Proof Father: Played with. When Ellie first suggests the house might be haunted, their father scoffs at the notion; later after both she and Jan relate Mrs. Aylwood's story, he wryly comments that if there is a ghost, it's fine with him as long as it just stays in the woods. And then he departs for London to work on his music, and is thus absent for all the supernatural goings-on as they escalate for the climax; it is noted he's coming back near the end of the movie, for the eclipse, but naturally everything is resolved before he can put in an appearance.
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: Plays a key role.
  • Trapped in Another World: During the eclipse thirty years ago, Karen and the Watcher switched places when a portal was opened between their dimensions, and they need Jan's help to reverse it.
  • Widow's Weeds: Mrs. Aylwood is a widow, but wears black in permanent mourning for her lost daughter.
  • Would Not Hurt A Child: Played with, but ultimately played straight. Aside from the moment when the flash of light knocks Jan in the pond and she nearly drowns, the Watcher actually seems to go out of its way to help save her and Ellie from harm, even when in situations that it had initially caused: it causes Ellie to call out to Jan and make her move from a particular boulder at the dirtbike race so that she is not struck by the flying bike after it crashes; after its presence spooks the horses and causes Ellie's to charge right toward a road where a truck is barreling down on her all unaware, it makes the truck crash to keep her from being hit; and after it stops their mother from taking them away by making their car stall, it urges Jan to drag Ellie and her mother off of the bridge so that when its power strikes the bridge and sends the car toppling into the ravine, they are safely away. Even the pond incident can be justified by it bringing Mrs. Aylwood to Jan's rescue (which incidentally allows them to learn the backstory behind what happened to Karen). On the whole the Watcher might cause danger, but because it needs the girls to achieve its goal, it still ends up protecting them from it.