The Watcher in the Woods is a 1980 Disney movie. A kid-friendly ghost story, Watcher tells the story of an American family of four who moves to a new house in England. Their move hinges on the approval of the owner of the house: the eccentric Mrs. Aylwood, played by the incomparable Bette Davis. Immediately, the oldest daughter of the family, Jan, begins picking up on a supernatural force which permeates the house. While the girl’s parents dismiss her fears, Mrs. Aylwood seems intrigued by Jan’s perceptiveness and allows the family to stay.
I had never heard of this movie in all my years of being a rather avid Disney fan and only came across it a few years ago by chance in a grocery store. Since it was near Halloween and going cheap, I put it in my basket and went home excited to watch it.
I was not disappointed.
The movie has a great atmosphere. The misty, wooded countryside as a setting is perfect for a ghost story and Davis’s performance as Mrs. Aylwood is excellent. Her performance is so integral to creating the mood of the piece that she is almost part of the setting herself. While clearly a woman with a haunted past, her motivations remain undefined long enough to keep the viewer unsure of whether she is a benign or malevolent character. Her loyalties seem to lie with the mysterious supernatural presence, but whether those loyalties will prove helpful or harmful to the young protagonists is not immediately clear.
As the protagonist, Jan is certainly less interesting than Mrs. Aylwood, but she is a very sympathetic character. Because the audience is just as uncertain of the situation as she is, it is easy to relate to her and go through the journey with her as she discovers more and more of the truth. Jan and her younger sister Ellie, who can also perceive the supernatural presence to a lesser extent, work together with a local boy to dig up the past and bring all the secrets to light. Their quest to unearth the truth reveals a long-covered up accident and the possibility to right that which went wrong.
Apart from Bette Davis and a few of the other adults, much of the acting in this movie is a little rocky. To be perfectly honest, though, it kind of makes it that much more enjoyable. The story is just weird enough that the unpolished presentation combined with the retro 70’s feeling creates a fun experience.
I highly recommend this movie as it is a great, moody piece. The slight melodrama, excellent suspense, and surprising conclusion make it a perfect movie to get into the Halloween spirit. Even the admittedly cheesy aspects of the film add to its charm.