Hello, Tor.com! Welcome back to the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia!
Today’s entry in the MRGN is 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods, one of my and my sisters’ biggest favorites of all the movies we’ve covered so far. So excited!
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
The Watcher in the Woods was released in 1980, but I did not see it until about five or six years later, when my friend’s mother rented the VHS, thinking it an appropriately creepy ghost story movie for young girls to watch during a slumber party. She was wrong, as it turned out—unless you were a particular kind of young girl. Like, say, me.
The other girls at the party were quickly disenchanted by the relatively slow pace and lack of either explosions, gore, or overt romance in the film, and soon lost interest in it altogether. I, on the other hand, was enthralled. From the moment the credits came up and began playing that lullaby-turned-ominous-suspense-theme, over shots of beautiful, sunlit, and yet also deeply creepy woods, I was irretrievably hooked.
I remember sitting in the TV room with my friend’s mother while the rest of the girls were off doing whatever boring non-awesome-movie-watching things they were doing, excitedly speculating to the lone (and, probably, very bemused) adult in the house about what could it all mean?? Who was the Watcher? What was the significance of the eclipse? And look, the triangle in the mirror matched the triangle in the chapel, and the omg the circle in the water meant that other circle, ring around the roses it was, and holy crap “Nerak” is KAREN SPELLED BACKWARDS, LIKE IN A MIRROR, BECAUSE KAREN IS IN THE MIRROR, and it was all connected, and and and—
I’m not certain, but there is a very good chance that TWITW was my first introduction to the concept of… um.
Well, the best way I can describe it is “the literary convention of creating a fictional reality where symbols, objects, or places have inherent mystical significance and/or power.” I feel like there should be a word for that, but I haven’t been able to come up with it. “Symbolism” is the obvious choice, but in my mind that means something quite different, in terms of literary devices. The Great Gatsby had symbolism; what I’m talking about is if that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock actually did something besides merely represent the false promise of recapturing the past, old sport.
Maybe it’s just that no one bothered to name it, seeing as it is almost exclusively the purview of SF stories, but more likely it’s because my Google-fu is subpar. Bleah.
Anyway, I might not know what to call it, but I bet you know exactly what I’m talking about: worlds where things like circles and triangles and mirrors and doorways all have the power to alter reality, merely by being what they are. And though I have never subscribed to the belief in the spiritual significance of these kinds of things in real life, I adore them in stories to itty bitty tiny bits. And I’m pretty sure that this movie was one of the first, if not the first, story that gave me the joy of discovering that love.
And as was my wont, I immediately tracked the movie down afterwards and demanded that my sisters be enthralled by it too, and the rest is history. To give you an idea of the importance of The Watcher in the Woods in my and my sisters’ nostalgic sphere, Liz and Kate’s textual reply to the news that we were reviewing it next on the MRGN was basically an explosion of “OMG”s and beaming ecstatic emojis. Not that I am mocking them, because my response was essentially the exact same thing. We loved, loved, LOVED this movie as kids. Which perhaps makes it rather strange that none of us had seen it in at least fifteen years, if not longer.
But I think I know why I, at least, never sought it out until now. Because this had been such a seminal movie of my childhood, cementing both my love of SF movies in general and my love of stories containing psychic phenomena/whatever that mystical symbolism thing is I can’t name in particular. So I think I avoided it as an adult because I absolutely did not want to find out that it had been visited by the Suck Fairy in the intervening years. Sort of a twist on that old saw about never meeting your heroes, I suppose.
But these days I have a JOB to do, y’see, and so I steeled myself for possible disappointment even as I gleefully anticipated doing the cinematic equivalent of reconnecting with a long-absent but still beloved childhood friend.
In discussing what we remembered of the movie beforehand, it was interesting how much of our memories were attached to the overall sound and look of the film rather than specifics. It has been well-established by now that I am a sucker for a good soundtrack, but I really do believe the importance of a film score for setting the mood and motif of a film cannot be overestimated—and for this kind of film, where mood and setting are the film’s greatest strength, it is even more true.
Liz in particular commented on the gorgeousness of the woods footage; somebody was apparently very enamored of the filtered sunlight effect, and it was awesome.
The music for Watcher was composed by Stanley Myers, who Wikipedia informs me wrote the scores for over 60 films before his death in 1993. He is most well-known for the guitar piece “Cavatina”, the theme for Deer Hunter, but perhaps he would be pleased to know that it is his warped-music-box theme for Watcher that has been most indelibly engraved on my and my sisters’ brains, to our delight. YouTube has sadly failed me in providing a good clip of the theme (that I could find, anyway), but trust me, it’s great.
The interesting thing about Watcher is that in its own way it is actually something of a genre-buster. The general set-up and atmosphere of the movie strongly leans toward the ghost story/mystery/Gothic thriller, but in the end it takes an abrupt turn for the straight-up science fictional, where it turns out that the mysterious “watcher” is actually an inter-dimensional alien who needs to get back home. Nowadays that kind of sudden left turn would make me blink a bit, but back in the day it never occurred to me to be weirded out about it.
Though perhaps I would have been had I seen the alternate ending back in the day. Seriously, my sisters and I put on the “alternate ending” clip in the DVD extras and were like, OMGWTFBBQ. Let’s just say, all we got to see of the Watcher in the original cut was this:
But apparently something quite a bit more concrete had originally been planned.
ME: Holy alien Muppets, Batman!
Allow me to state for the record (a statement corroborated strongly by Sisters Liz and Kate) that whoever decided to nix that thing for the aforementioned amorphous ball of light was a GENIUS. Even if we did get a giant kick out of seeing the alien Muppet blast Jan’s boyfriend Mike across the chapel with its laser beam eyes.
This, by the way, is Mike:
I trust no further explanation of our glee is needed.
But beautiful Mike-blasting aside, this extremely literal depiction of the alien was an extraordinarily bad idea that I am heartily grateful the filmmakers decided to scrap. (There is an even longer alternate ending, where we actually see Jan go to the alien’s dimension to rescue Karen, that is even worse.) Instead, wonderfully, we got a possessed younger sister Ellie to stand in as the alien’s spokesperson, in a much more effective continuation of the earlier ghost/psychic phenomena motif. This approach allowed the movie to not only avoid trying to depict things it frankly had neither the imagination or the budget for, but it let the story imply the hard SF edges of the plot without ever being forced to explicate them directly, which meant, in my opinion, that the whole thing held together infinitely better than it would have otherwise, and also possessed infinitely less cheese to boot. It’s win all around, as far as I am concerned.
(The more alien-y alternate ending is, I think, much more in line with the 1976 novel the movie was based on by Florence Engel Randall. I say “I think”, because even though I actually tracked down the novel and read it as a teenager, I really don’t remember enough about it to say so with confidence. But in any case, as we all know, you can do things in novels you really just can’t in films, especially not in the late 70s, and I commend the filmmakers for recognizing that.)
As a side note, Liz was bothered the whole movie about the young actress playing Ellie, until she finally realized that Kyle Richards is now one of the original Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. At which point I was forced to make endless fun of her for knowing enough about that show to recognize anyone on it, but even so: wow. Okay then.
Which reminds me to point out that if there is any one major flaw in this movie, it is the horribleness of its acting. Most particularly, unfortunately, the awfulness of the actress in the lead role.
Frankly I was rather shocked to find that Lynn-Holly Johnson had had any other acting jobs beyond this one, but apparently she did (including a role in Ice Castles, LOL), which I find more than a little beboggling, because wow is she bad in Watcher. I mean, even as kids we thought she was bad, and if you can get through the movie without wincing at her at least once as an adult, your willpower is considerable.
However, that said, on rewatching the movie now, we marveled at how the badness of Johnson’s acting was actually not the deterrent it should have been. Watching it now, in fact, her overacting contributed, in a very weird way, to selling the overall feel of the entire movie. I don’t really know how to explain it, except that for something like this—you know, your basic Disney Gothic YA alien ghost mystery thriller… thing, which you have to admit is a rather unusual niche to fill—the exaggerated, er, everything about her performance really sort of worked, mostly. Look, I don’t know, it’s confusing.
LIZ: That doesn’t explain her whacko accent, though. “Samthing AHW-ful hey-appened here.” What the hell is that?
KATE: Wikipedia says she was born in Chicago.
ME: Then I think she owes Chicago an apology.
This movie, by the way, is pretty much the gold standard of what I meant when I explained about our love of the Disney Live-Action Trash Movie, from the low budget to the questionable effects and right on down to the (to me) inexplicable presence of an elderly Bette Davis:
Who, kind of hilariously, manages to tone down her far superior acting ability in this movie to blend in with the rest of the cast. Though honestly I’m not sure if that was by design, or if Bette was just kind of done at that point and couldn’t be arsed to do more. In any case, she still failed to camouflage her natural charisma, and my intrigue at her presence in Watcher is what later led me, in probably appallingly backwards fashion, to the gems of her earlier years, like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and All About Eve (one of my favorite movies of all time, you should totally watch it if you haven’t already). Sorry, Bette, you may have tried to be awful (AHW-ful), but you couldn’t quite pull it off.
In the aggregate, while my sisters and I thoroughly enjoyed this movie despite (or maybe because of) its flaws, I don’t know that I could necessarily recommend it to another adult who did not have the nostalgic background to look past those flaws. Acting aside, the plot twists and mysterious symbols and jumpscares that so entranced me as a child are likely to strike an adult viewer as clichéd at the very least.
But then again, maybe not. Just because something’s been done before doesn’t mean no one should ever do it. And if you are an adult who loves movies like Stir of Echoes or The Skeleton Key, it might be worth giving this one a whirl, just to see something similar in simplified, diminutive form.
And if you know a kid of pre-teenish age just getting into the YA swing of things, show them this film, because if they are even slightly like me they will EAT IT UP. Eat it up and then ask for more, please. It would please me greatly if even one other young girl or boy could get anything near the excitement and pleasure out of this movie that we did. I would consider it mission accomplished, really.
And so ends my review of The Watcher in the Woods! And as (almost) always, we finish with my Nostalgia Love to Reality Love Scale of Awesomeness!
Reality: 8 (but really kind of 10)
And that’s the story, morning glories! Come back and join me in two weeks, when you’ll discover that you have been recruited by the Star League to watch and squee over 1984’s The Last Starfighter! Huzzah! See you then!