(1980) dir. John Hough
One of the local “mini-fests” that we have is the Castro Theatre’s “Midnite for Maniacs” film series, which features a lot of less-remembered films of the 1980’s among other tropes. The series is also interested in other pre-digital special effects fantasy films. Actually, that might be its primary trope, I don’t know. I haven’t, I am ashamed to say, made it to the theater for any of the showings, but I do keep an eye on the schedule and when something interesting comes along, I’ll plop it onto my queue.
This film, The Watcher in the Woods, was intended to be the Walt Disney Studio’s first ever PG-rated film, a step into more edgy fare than the traditional G-rated films it had produced for the prior 40 some odd years. Oddly enough, bad initial reception pushed it back and paved the way for Disney’s 1980 film, The Black Hole, to take that honor.
I saw a trailer for this film at the Castro earlier in the year, and the trailer is certainly something spooky and strange. Like the trailer itself, the film isn’t exactly clear what kind of fear-inspiring shenanigans are actually at work in this mysterious little thriller. The trailer focuses on the woods of the titles, twisted branches, and weird hand-held camera-work that could signify a body-chopping serial killer, an evil spirit, or who the heck knows.
The story is of a family that moves into a large house in the rural English landscape (somewhere), but the older of the two daughters senses something weird going on. Flashes of blue light, broken window, broken mirrors, an image of a disappeared blond-look-alike who is blind-folded and begging for help. Sound spooky? It kind of is.
Bette Davis is there, as the owner of the house, who lives nearby and yearns for her lost daughter.
You know, it actually takes the entire span of the movie for the mystery to unravel, which works in its favor, really, since by the time that the story is out there, you don’t have a lot of time left to go: “did that make any sense?” I won’t spoil it by saying what it is, but I do recommend if you watch this on DVD to watch the “alternate endings”, which were the original endings edited in two different ways that are scary and far-out, but actually aren’t handled in as satisfying a way as the ending the film wound up with. They are worth the extra minutes because they’re pretty weird.
It’s not great cinema, but discovering these odd pre-digital fantasy films does not lack charm.