The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sean Collier is a writer and movie critic. Listen to his podcast, The Number One Movie in America, on all major podcast apps. Follow him on Twitter for more reviews: @seancollierpgh

Let’s plan an absurdly specific double feature.

I want a double feature where both films were released in 1980, and take place in a remote, possibly haunted location. Both films must feature a child who receives psychic messages — and that child must write important information backward on or near a reflective surface. When an adult character sees the backwards writing, they must make a shocked face before a crash zoom revealing the true message.

So, yes: The first half of this double feature is The Shining.

The second half, surprisingly, is The Watcher in the Woods a teen-focused but truly unsettling haunting tale distributed by Disney. To be clear, I’m not suggesting any untoward influence between The Shining and The Watcher in the Woods. They’re contemporaries, almost certainly in production at the same time. (A few miles apart, in fact.) It’s a remarkable coincidence, though, and — what with The Shiningstanding as my favorite movie — one that primed me to enjoy the largely forgotten Disney thriller.

Lynn-Holly Johnson, a one-time Bond girl (For Your Eyes Only), stars as Jan, the teen daughter of a family that has moved into a sprawling, creaking British manse. She keeps seeing strange things in the forest that borders the property; meanwhile, her younger sister Ellie — Halloween tyke Kyle Richards — keeps unknowingly delivering psychic messages. (When the family questions why the massive house is so affordable, Ellie opines, “Maybe there’s a ghost,” instantly making her the smartest person in the movie.)

Turns out that the building’s caretaker, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis, who is as fantastic as you’d expect), has a long-lost daughter who disappeared after a lightning strike at a nearby chapel. Jan starts seeing a blindfolded vision of the lost girl in mirrors and ponds; if you can guess where the mystery is headed, congratulations, you’ve heard a British ghost story before.

Fortunately, “The Watcher in the Woods” keeps things lively with a series of unexpected action sequences. I did not expect a kinetically shot dirtbike sequence in this film, but it’s there, complete with a near-fatal accident. Director John Hough had a background in horror (Twins of Evil, The Legend of Hell House) before taking Disney gigs like this and Escape to Witch Mountain, so he knew how to make a memorable set piece. The gem of the bunch is a terrifying house-of-mirrors setup that likely traumatized thousands of late-Boomer teens.

The Watcher in the Woods was pulled from release almost immediately, as critics and audiences rejected a truly wild conclusion. Thanks to a fan edit you can find on YouTube, you can watch a reasonably convincing cut of the original version — that’s the one I saw — and judge for yourself if it was too out there for early-’80s teens. After a more streamlined (and less stunning) ending was re-shot, the new version was released in 1981 to mild success; it last received a DVD release in 2004 and is not yet on the Disney+ lineup.

While it lacks some drive — the middle stretch can get a bit sleepy — it’s a good time, and an interesting companion piece for Shining fans. If you have a friend who likes a mild thrill but doesn’t have the stomach for gore, this is a good choice.

They’ll have nightmares about screaming, blindfolded mirror ghosts, but that’s kind of the point.

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