Eclipse Special:: Ben Sher on The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

I was lying on my parents’ bed alone watching TV on a babysitter night. It’s funny how, especially when you’re young, you don’t know when a movie is suddenly going to emerge and weave itself forever into the fabric of your life. Of course there are direct parallels with falling in love. The scrolling TV listings on the Prevue Guide said that some channel—it must have been either channel 5 (TV38 out of Boston) or channel 9 (WWOR out of New York)–was showing The Watcher in the Woods with Bette Davis. “Oh,” I thought to myself, “that’s the actress I love from Wicked Stepmother.” The only time anybody has uttered those words.

I flipped the channel and saw Bette, looking surprisingly unglamorous without the blonde bob that she wore in her late ’80s swan song. She was showing a little girl a music box and saying “This belonged to my daughter. I gave it to her for her birthday.” Could there be a more perfect moment to suck a five or six year old boy into a movie and change his life forever? I love music boxes in movies, and I immediately fell in love with Bette’s character’s living room, with its old-fashioned furniture and gothic knick-knacks. Bette’s living room was emblematic of Watcher‘s tone, with which I also immediately fell in love: different from everything around me in my day-to-day life, comforting in its cozy darkness, eerie but relaxing. No other movie has ever made me feel the same particular brand of contentment, although the Disney TV movie Child of Glass from the same period tries.

Doesn’t everybody know the story of The Watcher in the Woods? Carroll Baker and her famous musician husband move their daughters Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson, who must have made a deal with the devil to make sure that this and Ice Castles played on the same networks on a loop throughout the ’80s and early ’90s) and Ellie (Kyle “Lindsaaaaaaaay! I need a robe!” Richards, who I gather eventually appeared on some obscure TV show) into a giant creepy mansion surrounded by woods. Bette Davis plays Mrs. Aylwood, the no-nonsense caretaker who lives in a cottage on the land, and has a weird fascination with Jan. “Are you kind?” she asks her the minute after she meets her, which is both weird and a really good question to ask new people. She’s wise. Soon everything that I ever wanted to happen to me happens to Jan: She sees a mysterious light in the woods from her bedroom window while reading a paperback. She falls in love with a cute skinny ’70s British boy. She finds a scary church in the woods. She encounters the ghost of a blindfolded blonde girl in a carnival funhouse. Meanwhile, Ellie becomes obsessed with the word Nerak, going so far as to give the name to her dog. Then she starts having visions and showing signs of possession! Jan becomes Nancy Drew, as all teen girls of the period did at some point. She is determined to find out the identity of the ghost girl in the mirror, and figure out why the woods glow. After she falls in a lake and Mrs. Aylwood saves her, she discovers that the ghost might be Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter KA-REN. She went missing after a game gone wrong in said church, traumatizing all of her playmates who eventually grew up to be Jan’s friends’ parents. In 1980 doing something horrible to your childhood playmate and then getting punished by being in a horror movie when you grew up was very big.

It took me forever to see The Watcher in the Woods in its entirety because my TV viewings kept getting interrupted by issues like parents making me go to bed (I was lucky, I had a friend whose parents wouldn’t let her watch it at all because they were Christian!). For some reason it never occurred to me to rent it. It seemed like a magical talisman that you had to stumble upon on a local network affiliate. Luckily, that happened constantly. So I ended up watching 15 minutes here and 15 minutes there, out of order. This weirdly worked for The Watcher in the Woods. I received the gift of walking in Jan’s shoes, trying to solve the puzzle, beholden to chance. I remember once I was finally about to see the ending and find out what happened to KA-REN and my mother told me we had to go to her friend’s house. I was livid, and as soon as we got there I said “YOU MUST SHOW ME TO YOUR TV IMMEDIATELY I NEED TO FINISH WATCHING SOMETHING! HURRY!” The ending did not disappoint. I think that the theatrical ending—where Karen’s grown playmates can only bring Karen back by re-enacting their trauma and owning what they did during a total eclipse of the sun—is somehow more satisfying, evocative, and profound than the film’s notorious alternate endings, where we see a gigantic grasshopper creature carrying Jan to The Other Side to rescue Karen from permanent limbo (that’s still a kind of brilliant ending, too, and it’s interesting how much Watcher foresees Poltergeist). The opening credits of Watcher were the last part of it I ever saw, and it was a huge deal for me. Finally, I knew everything.

Disney (and Watcher‘s filmmakers, director John Hough, writer Brian Clemens, cinematographer Alan Hume, musician Stanley Myers, and art director Alan Cassie) did something so kind by showing kids that that which is mysterious and scary can also be fun. They did us a favor by suggesting that the unknown could be exciting. I saw this movie shortly before I learned that in life safety is not guaranteed. Since then, I have been consistently amazed at how scary the world can be, how it can surprise you in the worst ways, and how the fear that it generates has absolutely nothing to do with the joy of horror movies. I am frequently disappointed by how much the dread of life’s unknown future has nothing to do with the tantalizing possibilities of the supernatural. These days I often feel like Phyllis in Last House on the Left (one of the horror movies that most perfectly captures the feeling of real world, pleasure-less terror) running into Krug’s machete right before she escapes from very different woods onto the highway. Given the social context that Last House was responding to, perhaps it makes sense that it resonates so much now. In this moment more than ever, I’d much rather be in the woods with Jan and Ellie, experiencing Watcher‘s masterful ability to keep you scared and safe at the same time.

That said, there’s some seriously scary shit in The Watcher in the Woods. I consider Bette Davis to be a friend, guardian angel, and advisor in times of trouble, but damn that scene where the viewer takes on Lynn-Holly Johnson‘s point of view as she’s drowning in the lake and Bette starts pushing her further down with a giant stick is chilling. She’s trying to save her, but we don’t know that! For years I would sometimes see that image and get spooked when I closed my eyes before bed. And then there’s the narrative that you don’t see in the theatrical version of The Watcher in the Woods: What happened to Karen before she was saved. I realize now that Watcher‘s horror is only safe if you align yourself with Jan and Ellie, as the filmmakers intended. When I was young, and knew less, it never occurred to me to align myself with Karen. But now I think about her, trapped in some other dimension beyond the realm of where she ever thought it was possible to go, separated from her loved ones, forced to rely on strangers to save her yet barely able to communicate with them. I wonder if maybe Watcher‘s scares are more adult than I realized.

Ben Sher