The Watcher in the Woods

You know your heroine is fucking DENSE when...
★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1980
Director: 
John Hough
Starring: 
Lynn-Holly Johnson, Bette Davis, Kyle Richards, Carroll Baker
The Setup: 
Girl is spooked repeatedly after her family moves into a creepy house.
Discussion: 

A remnant of the brief period where I felt like watching all the live-action Disney movies of my adolescence, I decided this one might make for a decent watch. I hadn’t seen it when I was younger, but I remember reading an article about it and always being intrigued by it. And again we discover that those impulses are often best left in the past.

So this family made up of an ineffectual and absent father, a pert blonde relatively clueless wife, a sixteen-year-old blonde daughter, Jan, and her younger [around eleven] sister Ellie, are looking for a house. No word on why. Their realtor drives thm out to this house in the woods, which is of course an enormous mansion for as little as a thousand a month. And as a kicker, Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood lives there. Get it? Something’s ailing the woods? The mom says it’s a little “isolated,” but the realtor describes it as “secluded.”

There’s a lot of casual talk about witches and ghosts, as per usual, and Jan is spooked by a sudden wind. Then she goes upstairs to a bedroom and sees a strange blue light in the woods, and cuts her hand on suddenly cracked glass. Then Bette is looming behind her, asking “Are you kind?” Jan explicitly asks her mother to keep looking, but they decide to take the house.

Now, after a briefly disturbing scene in which the father settles down to tickle the ivories, someone asks him something and he responds, in a rather leering voice, “I have a very soft touch late at night.” Uh, excuse me?

Then the little girl, who was SO in so many other movies of the time that I can’t remember now, adopts this little puppy that she will keep “adorably” tucked under her arm for almost the duration of the movie. The girl has her affect set to “adorable” for the entire movie in fact, which eventually makes you start to want to watch her fall into the combine. So she goes into a bit of a trance and writes “Narek” on the window of the barn, claiming that this is what the little puppy told her its name is. Now, especially when seen in the movie, it’s impossible not to notice that this rather bizarre name is in fact “Karen” spelled backwards, a fact that causes one of the neighboring women to shit a brick when she sees it.

Blah blah so Jan, who wears her hair in this style where the ends curl in toward her face, which most often has an expression of blank-eyed earnestness on it, runs out into the woods after stupid Ellie and her dumb puppy. Once there she is enchanted, then suddenly blue flashes knock her back into the water, and Bette appears out to nowhere to shove her down into the water with a branch! And you’re like “Yeah! Murderous grannies! That’s for ME!” but tragically, Jan lives, and it turns out that Bette actually SAVED her life, because she had to push her down into the water with the branch in order to free her from the tree trunk or whatever. Nevertheless, I was still on board due to the idea that Bette was going to try to kill Jan [who sorely needs it], although this idea ends up going absolutely nowhere. Oh, and the blue flashes? They don’t end up making any sense, either.

So it happens that Karen was Bette’s daughter, who went out one night, perhaps to “watch the eclipse” [yes, a solar eclipse at night, that’s right], and vanished. We see young Bette, who looks an awful lot like Jan’s current mom, run into an abandoned churchyard where kids are running about, and see that in this movie, evil shoots blue laser beams. That, we are later told, is lightning that struck the bell tower, where Karen vanished, her body never found.

So I forgot to tell you that Jan has been seeing visions of Karen, most notably in a mirror. She’s there all blindfolded. So she tells Bette that she’s seen Karen, and becomes all possessed that she has to find out exactly what happened to her. Her parents think she’s all nuts, and that Bette is filling her with crazy notions. This whole line of inquiry is summarily dropped after this. Then they go to some motocross race, idiot puppy still in Ellie’s arms, and Jan almost gets killed by a motorcycle, which ultimately makes no sense, as this was obviously a supernatural occurrence, yet doesn’t Karen want Jan alive so she can find out what happened with her disappearance? And after a while you stop trying to make any sense out of this whatsoever.

Also on hand is this British blond surfer boy who is always saying “Do you want to talk about it?” in his first scenes, until he switches to saying “oh come on!” to everything. He and Ellie and Jan go horseback riding one day, but Jan doesn’t want to cut through the woods [leading surfer dude to say “Oh, come on!” which is apparently argument enough]. They are no sooner in the woods than a sudden wind spooks the horses and they all go running off in different directions, which was fairly effective. Jan is carried to the ruins of the church where Karen vanished, and stalked by a creepy man, and sees THIS on the floor:

Jan is all like “These circles must MEAN SOMETHING!” and you, the viewer, are like “FUCKING DUMB BITCH! Did we not already HAVE a lot of talk about how Karen vanished during an eclipse? And are we not already aware that there’s going to be another eclipse soon? And that thing on the floor does not suggest an eclipse to you AT ALL? Ah, but you do know that it must mean SOMETHING!” And this feeling for Jan will only get worse through the rest of the film, because she is fucking DENSE as shit and runs around the whole movie with her mouth open and this wide-eyed earnest but idiotic look on her face. She is also unaware that when you run up to strangers and start demanding intimate personal secrets from long ago in their lives because you are in communication with a dead girl, well, you sound a little nuts. It would be nice if Jan had even a shred of awareness that she comes off this way, but no. My favorite of these moments is when she says to Bette, mother of the dead child: “I’ve seen Karen!” “Where?” Bette asks. “In mirrors!”

Oh, I see. In mirrors.

It starts getting more frantic now. There’s this whole thing where Jan goes to Bette’s house and has this freaky possession, causing her mother [Carroll Baker, btw] to rush in with the ever-popular “What have you DONE to her?!?” Then later Jan’s on this bridge when this laser beam comes from space—SO not kidding—and hits this truck which causes it to run off the bridge.  SPOILERS, THAT ARE MORE INTERESTING THAN ACTUALLY WATCHING THE MOVIE, FOLLOW > > > So it is eventually revealed that back in the day the kids were playing some silly initiation game in the bell tower where Karen was blindfolded, and a laser beam struck the bell tower, starting it aflame, and all the other kids took off, leaving Karen there, whereupon she soon after vanished. It doesn’t seem to me that the others have all that much to feel guilty about—sure, they shouldn’t have run off, but they didn’t KILL her, and Karen’s hands were free to remove her blindfold at any time—but all of them have been totally weighed down with guilt their whole lives. So Jan convinces them all to get back together as adults because they “have” to re-enact the scenario during the eclipse, and they all just go along. Jan continues her psychotic ordering everyone around when she screams at someone giving an incantation: “To me! I’M Karen now! Say it to me!”

Anyway, so Ellie gets possessed and starts speaking in a robot voice that Karen was taken into another dimension during the eclipse, and now they’re ready to give her back. There’s a big beam of light and rush of wind, and all of a sudden Karen is back [not aged a day, apparently] and Bette rushes in and has a tearful reunion, and everyone’s happy, the end.

But wait! What of the alternate endings? These are the original endings, apparently. There are two, one 7 minutes and one 17. In the first, shorter one, this skull-bat thing from another dimension comes out of nowhere and blasts the surfer boy with blue laser eyes, then wraps up Jan in its wings and flies her off to another dimension, and a second later there’s a flash of light and they’re both back. Then there’s a different, more affecting reunion with Bette, and the end. This version actually makes a little more sense of the blue flashes that have been occurring throughout the movie. The second alternate ending, apparently containing footage added when the first ending failed with preview audiences, adds a little more about Jan’s mom experiencing the same things that happened to Bette when Karen disappeared, and in this one we see the alternate dimension and the alien spaceship, where Jan meets and embraces Karen, before they’re both returned, and it all ends like the first alternate ending. Apparently the studio didn’t like either, and just re-shot the ending [without the director’s input] and dumped it out to theaters, where it bombed.

It’s hard to do genre mash-ups. One often thinks it’s a good idea to draw audiences in with the promise of one kind of story [in this case, a ghost story] and switch it eventually into another kind of story [a sci-fi thing about alternate dimensions], but the problem is it often leaves the audience—who came to see one kind of movie—feeling a little cheated and tricked. One notable example of this is Malice, which sets itself up as a serial killer thriller but ends up as a noir, or Identity, which starts as a slasher and ends as… something else. Both of them left me feeling cheated. Here it’s not so bad—simply because the entire movie is such a mess that nothing would come as a surprise, and secondly because the whole intergalactic thing is at least unexpected, as opposed to whatever dreary retread we would have been saddled with had the whole thing been left as a ghost story. One of the few genre shifts that actually worked was in The Prestige, and that was mostly because the genre it shifted into wasn’t too far removed from the movie one came in to see, and it laid careful clues in from the opening credits.
< < < SPOILERS END

Lynn-Holly Johnson [Jan] was the lead of Ice Castles, and was in For Your Eyes Only before moving to TV. Kyle Richards [Ellie] is still working today [and turned into quite a babe] and was in Halloween and Halloween II, as well as Little House on the Prairie [which must be where I recognize her from]. The director, John Hough, also directed my beloved Escape to Witch Mountain as well as its disastrous sequel, Return from Witch Mountain, and The Incubus.

So, on the whole, kind of a bust, although I can see how this film has its supporters. See it if you were into it as a child or just can tolerate mildly ghostly stuff that makes no sense and is peopled by irritatingly stupid characters. Or don’t see it at all. Your life will proceed with comparable richness either way.

Should you watch it: 

If you want, though I wouldn’t bother.