THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980) review – Halloween Special 2018

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It’s Halloween month, y’all, and you know what that means! It’s time to catch up on our favorite horror movies and gear up for Halloween! Last year, I did a Halloween special where I reviewed some of my favorite horror, or Halloween-appropriate movies and I had so much fun doing that, I wanted to do it again. Sadly, I don’t like a lot of horror movies, so my pool of material is about as deep as a puddle in summer in California. So in order to rectify this, I’ve reached out to the deepest and darkest corners of the internet and asked for a little help. And by that, I mean I went on Facebook. So, a very special thanks to the Movie Talk community, as well as my friends and co-workers, for your horror movie suggestions. I won’t be able to get to every single recommendation, but you’ve all left me with great ideas and there’s always next year! This is my Halloween Special 2018!

Cast: Lynn-Holly Johnson (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of), Bette Davis (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of), Kyle Richards (HALLOWEEN [1978]), Carroll Baker (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of), and David McCallum (BATMAN VS. ROBIN [2015] and WONDER WOMAN [2009])

Director: John Hough (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of)
Writers: Brian Clemons (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of – RIP, sir), Rosemary Ann Sisson (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of – RIP, miss), and Harry Spalding (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of)
Composer: Stanley Myers (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of)
Cinematographer: Alan Hume (STAR WARS: JEDI [1983])
Editor: Geoffrey Foot (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of)

This is my honest opinion of: THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS



The Curtis family has just moved into the home of the elderly Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), a woman whose daughter, Karen, disappeared thirty years ago, but is believed to be dead. Elder Curtis daughter, Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson), however, feels a presence in the nearby woods watching her. The longer they stay, the more the presence has an effect on Jan’s younger sister Ellie (Kyle Richards). Soon, the mystery of what happened to Karen comes back into light and Jan is compelled to solve the mystery.


I don’t care if this is a movie meant for kids, this was actually pretty good.

For one thing, the protagonist is a decent character. Jan is a caring and responsible older sister who occasionally loses her temper with Ellie, but not enough to be one of those older siblings who just doesn’t care. She’s quick to jump to action when Ellie runs off into the woods and comfort her when she’s scared. She has a strong level of conviction, and once she knows what she has to do to solve the mystery of Karen’s disappearance, she doesn’t stop looking for answers. Even if someone refuses to cooperate, she finds new avenues to explore. Actually, one of my favorite moments in the movie is when Jan is at some kind of fair or carnival (difference?) and she goes into a fun-house mirror building and starts seeing visions of Karen and you can tell that she’s mouthing “help me.” First of all, pretty creepy moment, but what I love about the following scene is that she was smart enough to acknowledge that Karen was mouthing help. In any lesser horror film, the protagonist would simply freak out, cry, and generally be annoying. Or be too dumb to know what she was actually saying. Give a Disney horror movie credit, it does away with a cliché that most horror movies fall into. There’s obviously not much depth to Jan, but what I think makes Jan work so well is the natural likability of Johnson, who really sells her role.

Even Ellie isn’t a typical kid character. I mean, she doesn’t break molds or anything, but again, she’s written in a way that’s just the right amount of adorable, but sympathetic, and completely not annoying. Actually, she probably has the best lines in the entire movie. My favorite is one of her first. Jan makes a joke about wandering into the woods and getting snatched up by a witch, and Ellie says, “If she lives in a ginger bread house, I’ll eat it up. I’m starved!” I giggled. She’s also somewhat in on the action. While she’s most relegated to always need saving, she does do her fair amount of saving as well. Saves Jan’s life at least once and is usually the element that progresses the story when Jan is all out of options.

One of my favorite elements of the movie is just how suspenseful it can get. While it never goes full-on scary, aside from a clichéd “cat jump scare,” but thankfully that’s the only one of its kind. But the actual “watcher,” which is just a hand-held POV shot, you can never tell if it’s a benevolent, or malevolent entity. You also don’t really know if it’s related to the lights and images that Jan sees. Like the blue ring of light that flashes brightly. It’s been responsible for Jan nearly drowning and for a truck getting driven off the road and flipped on its side into a stream. And yet, there are instances where a voice talks to Ellie and ends up saving her life from a crashed motor bike. There does seem to be a separation of intentions within these forces and it’s quite interesting to see where it will all build up to. <<<SPOILERS – highlight to reveal>>> [ The only downside to this build-up is that by the time you get to the end, you have no idea what the trans-dimensional being was doing. Why did it scare the horses? Why did it try to drown Jan? Why did it cause that truck to crash? That driver could have died. There’s so many things that this being does that don’t ultimately make sense. If it wanted to go home and switch places with Karen, it was doing a lousy job of making that clear. ] <<<END SPOILERS>>>

And there’s some pretty neat effects for the time period. Like when windows and mirrors break, the center shard will have Karen’s blindfolded face in them. There’s another bit where Karen is looking in the mirror in a POV shot and her reflection isn’t there. I’m sure this camera trick has been done before, so maybe I’m just easily impressed, but still, I enjoyed that.

However, with all of my praises, this movie does have a few oopsies, though they’re mostly nitpicks.

As I previously mentioned, there’s some dated effects along with the good ones. Like a Microsoft Paint-quality red dot somehow signifies a cut on Jan’s finger? That really wasn’t necessary. A simple, “Ouch!” would have sufficed. Some moments get a bit too over-the-top for this otherwise fairly subtle film. Like, did you know there’s a car that falls off a cliff and explodes. Yup, and it’s totally unnecessary. The movie also had a penchant for ripping off Stephen King’s The Shining, as there’s scenes where Ellie writes sentences backward. I’m pretty sure “REDRUM” was in the book. Finally, the movie sort of just stops, rather than a satisfying ending for my tastes. <<<SPOILERS – highlight to reveal>>> [ We see Karen come back from the other dimension. Yay, for Mrs. Aylwood and company. However, the last time we saw Mrs. Curtis, she was threatening to leave the Aylwood home because of the ghost stories that Jan was saying. Does she still want to leave? It’s not like an ordeal like this would leave a pair of youngsters completely intact. Would they even tell their parents about this? Would they believe them? A lot of open ended subplots here. ] <<<END SPOILERS>>>

Overall, as far as kid horror movies are concerned, I think this is the best of its class. Yes, yes, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, CORALINE, there’s plenty with that horror edge, but those always have a sense of fun, or even a hint of comedy to them. This is a straight-up drama and I have no idea if I’ve seen another kids horror quite like this. It’s well-written, simple, but easily identifiable characters, and leaves a whole lot of intrigue on where the story will go. I really like this movie and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend checking it out, especially with your kids.

My honest rating for THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS: a strong 4/5


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