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How ‘Watcher in the Woods’ Shattered the G-Rated Disney Mold

Disney's experimental phase attracted a screen legend and plenty of scares

John Hough’s “The Watcher in the Woods” (1981) made history for being the very first horror film to emerge from the Walt Disney company, during their weird period of brand experimentation and multiple creative mishaps.

It stars former figure skating champion Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan, who moves with her family into an old home tucked away in England. Once they settle in, Jan and her sister (Kyle Richards) discover that the owner of the residence, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), had a daughter named Karen who has been missing for 30 years. Not long after that, Jan has visions of Karen, blindfolded and trapped in a living room mirror.

It gets weirder from there.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980) Theatrical Trailer #1 (4K)

“The Watcher in the Woods” arrived around the time when Disney was producing middle-of-the-road animated films (ranging from “The Fox and the Hound” to its biggest flop, “The Black Cauldron,” which nearly bankrupted the entire studio) and hit and mostly miss adult fare (like the admirable but too ahead of its time “TRON” and the thrilling but too intense “Dragonslayer”).

Reportedly, the poor box office for “The Black Cauldron” (1985) was so severe, the company’s theme park revenues kept Disney from going under. It seemed the likes of “The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975) and “Condorman” (1981) weren’t aiding the legacy of a studio that was making interesting choices but had temporarily lost its way.

I love this crazy period at The Mouse House, where big swings like “Return to Oz” and this film demonstrated a let’s-try-anything approach to filmmaking that the now carefully modulated, commercial and IP-driven Disney would never attempt today.

Former Paramount Pictures head Michael Eisner showed up and rejuvenated the animation unit (“The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” were the game changers) and the live action output (the Touchstone Pictures label allowed for PG or PG-13 hits that didn’t bare the Disney name but sent them the profits).

Prior to Eisner’s company-changing and enhancing efforts, the studio released troubled oddities like “The Watcher in the Woods,” which, as of this writing, is not on Disney + and has a downplayed presence in the company’s film library.

An indication of the film’s unusual standing as a Walt Disney film can be found at the end of the film’s spooky trailer, the following message comes on the screen:

“As proud as we are of ‘The Watcher in the Woods,’ Walt Disney Productions strongly recommends that parents pre-screen the picture for pre-teens. It is not for small children!”

Hough’s film may be intended for older kids and pre-teens, but it has the look and feel of a “Friday the 13th” sequel. Note the many POV shots of an unseen presence in the woods stalking the youngsters. There’s also shriek chords to provide mild jump scares and many scenes set in the sticks – it sure does feel like Jason Voorhees is going to pop up at any moment.

Then there are the actual scary moments, surreal bits where the missing girl briefly materializes in a mirror reflection or pulls Jan into a body of water.

“The Watcher in the Woods” was one of two Disney Horror Films (yes, this deserves to be a sub-genre), as it was followed by “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983). That film also earned a PG rating despite giving a generation of ’80s kids years of sleepless nights.

Ironic, that the company that had traumatized youths worldwide with the works ranging from “Bambi” to “Old Yeller” and “Fantasia” was now going out of its way to actually make a fright fest, however mild.

RELATED: Why ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ Saved the Mouse House

Another striking similarity “The Watcher in the Woods” shares with “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is that they both suffered an extended postproduction period, enforced after negative test screenings. Multiple edits and reshoots altered the original visions.

In the case of “The Watcher in the Woods,” the far wilder grand finale, which turned the film into full blown sci-fi, was deleted to make the supernatural coda more pronounced, if gentler.

If you’re revisiting this film for the first time since the 1980s or a seeing it for the first time, I can’t stress enough what a treat it is to see the original, unused ending.

Whether you prefer the discarded ending (as I do- it’s on YouTube and the out-of-print DVD from Anchor Bay) or like the shimmering light effects in the theatrical cut, what’s been there all along is telling: the movie climaxes with a creepy séance and ritual in which a blindfolded character is used to summon a supernatural entity.

This from the company that gave us Herbie the Love Bug.

Of the two too-scary-for-the-Mouse-House curiosity items of this era, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is far more polished and disturbing, though the severe studio-imposed edits and alterations make for the more artistically compromised of the two.

Also, that film is based on a Ray Bradbury masterpiece (it’s a mixed and mostly disappointing adaptation), whereas Hough’s film is based on a lessar known 1976 novel by Florence Engel Randall.

“The Watcher in the Woods’ was remade as a Lifetime TV movie with Anjelica Huston and Melissa Joan Hart in 2017. Perhaps another remake can allow the ambition and full potential of the story to work on film.

The Watcher in the Woods: Official Trailer | Lifetime

As is, the 1981 version has a jarring edge for a Disney live action film of that era, living up to its curiosity item status as a rare horror film from the company. Seeing the luminous Bette Davis and the varying endings in circulation are enough to revisit it.

A better reason might be to enjoy a time when The Walt Disney Company, with this film and “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” went out of their way to traumatize the same youngsters who emerged from their park bearing mouse ears.

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