Just Out of Sight… – The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Disney’s The Watcher in the Woods, despite being Disney, is an effective little chiller that is far more spooky than it is scary but it works on every level and is the perfect movie for a cool, Halloween night.

It all begins benignly enough as a family is searching for a house to rent for a period of time and when looking it over, Jan gets a strange feeling that makes her want to leave. As it is, mother Helen as played by Carroll Baker thinks it perfect and so they stay. From that first night on, Jan starts to see visions of a girl in a blindfold – the daughter of their landlord Mrs. Aylwood portrayed by Bette Davis. Peculiar happenings continue to affect Jan and her sister Ellie and it soon comes to the point where Jan needs to find out what transpired with the little girl all those years ago, dragging in the locals who were present at the time no matter how much they resist so that somehow, someway they can all move forward with their lives.

With no blood, no gore and no real villain to speak of, director John Hough uses a lot of first-person camera-work, a little mystery, inexplicable and mystifying events as well as some good performances from the cast to make and sell this film and it ends up working better than one would have thought. Lynn-Holly Johnston is well-cast as Jan, the lead of the film despite Davis getting top-billing and she is quite pleasant in presence and demeanour making her investigation into what happened all those years ago in the past enjoyable to follow. Kyle Richards plays her sister Ellie who is also affected by the ‘ghost’ that haunts them and there are times where she gets possessed, sometimes for good purpose and others during which it finds her slightly eerie to watch. As for Davis, what can one say other than she gives yet another great performance in a long line of them, though to be fair, she had little to do in this particular film compared to others which was not a bad thing as it let the younger stars of the picture shine.  The special effects are solid and the haunting atmosphere throughout makes the film far more frightening than it should be which is feather in the cap to all involved and when coupled with the performances from the cast, transforms this family drama into something more.

With a film like The Watcher in the Woods under their belt, one would have thought that Disney would continue to put out more incredible movies outside of their wheelhouse – pictures like Tron and The Black Hole and so forth. The horror in this film is palpable and one can easily see how it had scared so many kids when it was first released as it is just as effective today as it was then. Why the movie is not more readily available than a DVD release is bewildering, to say the least, but perhaps one day Disney will realize what a treasure it has buried and give it the love and the attention it deserves.

4 out of 5

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