The Watcher in the Woods DVD has Bette Davis's scary face right on the front cover. Yikes! This vintage Disney spookfest is one of the best old favorites to hit DVD in a long time -- for those who saw it in its initial 1981 run, or for those who like their ghost stories bloodless, The Watcher in the Woods is definitely worth a peek.
Based on the popular novel, A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall, the film hits the ground running, bombarding us with "boos". American blonde, pretty teen Jan Curtis (Lynn-Holly Johnson, of "Ice Castles" fame) moves with her family to a creepy woods-surrounded mansion in England, owned by the mysterious Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). Once the realtor reveals to the Curtis family that Mrs. Alywood's daughter, Karen, disappeared into the woods 30 years earlier, strange things are cued to start happening. Jan starts getting haunted by spooky voices and freaky visions (or lack of visions… in one chilling scene, she doesn't reflect in an antique mirror), and her little sister Ellie (Kyle Richards), seems oddly possessed by an entity who like to write backwards.
Director John Hough (whose Legend of Hell House is one of my favorite old-school supernatural flicks) does a great job on keeping the thrills and chills coming as the family moves about the gothic mansion and explores the fog-shrouded woods. The mystery is well-paced, but one can't get too terribly wrapped up in the plot thanks to the overwrought acting which borders on camp (Davis, especially, camps it up as the withered widow who skulks about like an overly made-up wraith with a 10-pack a day habit). The well-directed suspense scenes are buoyed by superb locations and lavishly gloomy sets (a rundown cathedral and mausoleum are especially atmospheric).
Folks who saw The Watcher in the Woods when they were kids (that's me, raising my hand) will probably be nostalgic and forgiving of the film's flagrant flaws. Young children seeing it for the first time will likely be entranced by the ghostly ambiance and the kiddie mystery. Adults seeing it for the first time will either have a laugh, or be mildly entertained by this "horror-lite".
The DVD extras include two alternate endings -- one 6 minutes long, and the other 14 minutes; these were original endings that were scrapped after disastrous test screenings (this delayed the film for about a year, while a new ending was conceived and shot). There are also two original theatrical trailers, which are sort of an interesting time capsule (especially the warning at the end, stating that parents should pre-screen The Watcher in the Woods before taking the kids). In this brand new DVD release, Disney has excised all of the extras that were on the previous Anchor Bay release (now there's no audio commentary, no filmographies, and no collectible booklet).
All in the all, the DVD is worth a look if you're a nostalgic fan, or if you've always wondered why The Watcher in the Woods has such a strong cult following.
Review by Staci Layne Wilson for Horror.com