Paul Curtis, played by three time Emmy nominee David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), and his wife Helen, played by Golden Globe winner Carroll Baker (Baby Doll), move into an English mansion in the countryside. Paul is an opera conductor, and Helen writes children’s books. They are not alone, with them are their two daughters: Jan, a teenager, portrayed by Golden Globe nominee Lynn-Holly Johnson (Ice Castles), and her younger sister, Ellie (Kyle Richards). In the adjacent cottage, lives the owner of the mansion, the haggard looking, Mrs. Aylwood, a role acted by two time Oscar winner Bette Davis (Dangerous). Mrs. Aylwood needs money, that is the reason she’s renting out the mansion at an affordable price, but she has no intention of selling the house. Thirty years earlier, a tragedy befell Karen, her daughter, whose presence she thinks she feels on the property. When Mrs. Aylwood first sees Jan, she’s startled at the resemblance she has to Karen. (As an aside: Kyle Richards is perhaps best known to fans of the original Halloween (1978) film. She played the role of Lindsey; a role which she reprised in 2021’s Halloween Kills).
No sooner does the Curtis family move in, that strange occurrences begin to happen, but oddly, not to the adults, only to the two girls. Flashing blue lights appear, mysterious images of a blindfolded girl inside of the mirrors or glass can be seen by Jan; words are spoken to Jan and Ellie by an unseen presence, and that’s just the beginning. As the film progresses, the girls find themselves, at different times, in situations of danger. Those scenes are unlikely to frighten adults, but might increase the heartbeats of some younger viewers, especially on a first time viewing.
From the outset, Jan senses a strange presence. She begins to feel that there is more to the story of Mrs. Alywood’s daughter’s disappearance, than what has been told the past three decades. After a harrowing experience, she has an opportunity to talk with Mrs. Alywood about Karen. As it turns out, on the night she disappeared, Karen was at an old church with three friends: Mary (Frances Cuka), Tom (Richard Pasco), and John, portrayed by Oscar nominee Ian Bannen (The Flight of the Phoenix). Karen is blindfolded and is taking part in an initiation ceremony being run by John. A storm seemingly comes out of nowhere, and the building begins to get destroyed, which prompts the friends to run. When the storm is over, everyone is accounted for, including Mrs. Alywood, who went to look for her daughter. The only person missing is Karen. After Jan learns this, and her sensing that someone or something is trying to reach out to her, she attempts to piece the mystery together. Jan begins by talking to those who were involved in the initiation ceremony. She is helped by her boyfriend Mike (Benedict Taylor), who is Mary’s son. (As an aside: The younger version of Mrs. Alywood shown to viewers, in a flashback scene, is played by BAFTA winner Georgina Hale (Mahler), and the younger version of John, is acted by BAFTA winner Dominic Guard (The Go-Between).
What will Jan discover? Is there a supernatural presence haunting the Aylwood manor? What if anything will happen to her sister Ellie, and the rest of her family? Could Karen still be alive after thirty years? If she is, what are her reasons for remaining in hiding all that time? Do the grown adults, who were involved in the initiation ceremony as teenagers, know more than they’re letting on? All of those questions will be answered by the film’s conclusion.
Trivia buffs take note: There is a 100 minute cut of the film that was originally shown to test audiences, but has never been released to the public. On The Anchor Bay release of the DVD, is included two alternate endings, which gives viewers most of the footage that was kept out of the film. Oscar nominee Diane Lane (Unfaithful) was originally cast in the role of Jan, but dropped out before filming began. The film was going to be a television movie, before the Disney Studio decided to release it in theaters. Oscar nominee Quinn Cummings (The Goodbye Girl) was offered the role of Ellie, but turned it down.
“The Watcher in the Woods” was directed by John Hough (The Legend of Hell House). In addition, Vincent McEveety (Star Trek: The Original Series) contributed toward the directing of the film, but did not receive credit for his work. The screenplay was co-written by Emmy nominee Brian Clemens (The Avengers); Harry Spalding (The Magical World of Disney); Rosemary Anne Sisson (The Black Cauldron); and additional contributions were made by Gerry Day (Dennis the Menace), but he didn’t receive credit for his work. Florence Engel Randall’s novel “A Watcher in the Woods” published by Atheneum Books, on March 1, 1976, served as the basis for the screenplay. The music composed by BAFTA winner Stanley Myers (Middlemarch), sets the right tone for what is taking place throughout the film. “The Watcher in the Woods” premiered on April 17, 1980 in New York City, New York. Parts family, horror, mystery, and thriller the film has a runtime of 84 minutes. On October 21, 2017, a remake of the original was directed by Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch). The television movie starred Oscar winner Anjelica Huston (Prizzi’s Honor).
Adults who watched the film as children or teenagers, will probably view the film through a nostalgic lens. Those who are older, who have never seen the film, might find it too tame. “The Watcher in the Woods” is an entertaining children’s film, and for those children, like myself, who wanted to watch scary movies at an inappropriate age, this would make for a good introduction to the genre. There are some moments, as mentioned earlier, that younger viewers might find contain genuine fright, but there are no scenes containing gore or violent death. I would recommend it for children who are interested in scary stories, adults who enjoyed the film in their youth, and Disney aficionados, who have never seen the film.