The Watcher in the Woods (1981)

PG | 83 mins | Horror, Mystery | 9 October 1981

Director:

John Hough

Producer:

Ron Miller

Cinematographer:

Alan Hume

Editor:

Geoffrey Foot

Production Designer:

Elliot Scott

Production Company:

Walt Disney Productions
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HISTORY

A working title of the film was A Watcher in the Woods, the same title as the 1976 Florence Engel Randall novel upon which the film is based.
       End credits include the following statement: “Filmed on location and at Pinewood Studios, London, England.”
       In the final version of The Watcher in the Woods, released in 1981, the actress portraying “Karen Aylwood,” a non-speaking role, did not receive onscreen credit. However, an earlier version of the film was released in 1980, and reviews in the 17 Apr 1980 NYT and the 23 Apr 1980 Var reported that actress Katherine Levy played the role.
       The 21 Nov 1978 HR announced that Walt Disney Productions purchased the screen rights to A Watcher in the Woods while the 13 Sep 1979 HR reported that the film was originally planned as a television movie, but, one week into principal photography, Disney decided upon a theatrical release. An item in the 3 Sep 1979 Publishers Weekly reported that Randall received additional compensation for the theatrical release, and a movie tie-in was planned for Scholastic Books’ reprint of the novel.
       Items in the 4 Jun 1979 HR and the 11 Jul 1979 Var reported that Diane Lane would star in the film; however, Lynn-Holly Johnson portrayed the character “Jan Curtis.”
       The 29 Jun 1979 DV noted filming would begin in late Jul 1979 in London, England, however, as reported in the 22 Aug 1979 HR, principal photography began in late Aug 1979. According to production notes in ... More Less

A working title of the film was A Watcher in the Woods, the same title as the 1976 Florence Engel Randall novel upon which the film is based.
       End credits include the following statement: “Filmed on location and at Pinewood Studios, London, England.”
       In the final version of The Watcher in the Woods, released in 1981, the actress portraying “Karen Aylwood,” a non-speaking role, did not receive onscreen credit. However, an earlier version of the film was released in 1980, and reviews in the 17 Apr 1980 NYT and the 23 Apr 1980 Var reported that actress Katherine Levy played the role.
       The 21 Nov 1978 HR announced that Walt Disney Productions purchased the screen rights to A Watcher in the Woods while the 13 Sep 1979 HR reported that the film was originally planned as a television movie, but, one week into principal photography, Disney decided upon a theatrical release. An item in the 3 Sep 1979 Publishers Weekly reported that Randall received additional compensation for the theatrical release, and a movie tie-in was planned for Scholastic Books’ reprint of the novel.
       Items in the 4 Jun 1979 HR and the 11 Jul 1979 Var reported that Diane Lane would star in the film; however, Lynn-Holly Johnson portrayed the character “Jan Curtis.”
       The 29 Jun 1979 DV noted filming would begin in late Jul 1979 in London, England, however, as reported in the 22 Aug 1979 HR, principal photography began in late Aug 1979. According to production notes in AMPAS library files, St. Hubert’s Manor, an estate near Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, which included woods and a pond, was the location for the fictional “Curtis” family’s vacation home. Ettington Park Manor, near Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, was used for “John Keller’s” home and for scenes set in an old chapel. Additional English locations included other sites in Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire, and at Pinewood Studios in London. Special effects scenes were filmed at Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. The 21 Nov 1979 Var noted the completion of filming on 2 Nov 1979 after twelve weeks of principal photography.
       The 17 Apr 1980 HR reported that Bette Davis celebrated her fiftieth anniversary in the film business at the world premiere of her eighty-fifth feature film, The Watcher in the Woods. The $7.1 million film opened on 17 Apr 1980 at the Ziegfield Theater in New York City for an exclusive run prior to its staggered wide release in 600 --700 theaters by 7 Jun 1980. However, as tracked in articles in the 21 May 1980 Var, the 2 Jun 1980 Box, , the 25 May 1980 LAT and the 20 Oct 1981 NYT, the film was not well received and the ending was critically panned. Vincent Canby’s widely quoted NYT review noted the conclusion featured a “creature that looks as if it had been stolen from a Chinese New Year’s Parade.” During the film's 17 Apr 1980 – 1 May 1980 Ziegfield run, the film grossed approximately $42,000. On 20 May 1980, Disney cancelled the film’s screenings, hoping to recut the film, utilizing available footage. The edited version was shown at test screenings and, although viewers indicated they liked the picture, the ending still received a negative response. Disney completely removed The Watcher in the Woods from release and, to satisfy exhibitors’ demands for a profitable Disney film to replace it, Mary Poppins (1964, see entry) was re-released, almost a year earlier than its planned Easter 1981 reissue. Rather than take a $7 million loss on The Watcher in the Woods, Disney chose to rework the ending. According to articles in the 20 Oct 1981 NYT and the 25 Oct 1981 LAT, special effects expert Harrison Ellenshaw was brought onto the project, and the additional special effects cost approximately $1 million. A new ending and reshoots of existing scenes necessitated reassembling the cast at Pinewood Studios, where the film’s sets were still in storage. The 1980 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strike delayed the reshoots until Nov 1980. Due to scheduling conflicts, Bette Davis filmed her revised scenes separately during the winter in CA.
       The 20 Oct 1981 NYT reported that the film was released again, on a staggered, regional basis, with openings in Boston, MA; Richmond, VA; Salt Lake City, UT; WA; and NC on 9 Oct 1981. The 25 Oct 1981 LAT reported the $9 million film would open in a second “wave” of three hundred theaters in late Oct 1981, and would be released in three hundred West coast theaters near the end of Nov 1981.
       The 9-15 Dec 1981 Village Voice listed The Watcher in the Woods as one of the “flops” of the fall 1981 releases, with a boxoffice gross of $5 million to date. An article in the 20 Jan 1982 Var reported that Disney’s first quarter income had dropped thirty-three percent, largely due to its The Watcher in the Woods write-off of $6.7 million.
       The Watcher in the Woods marked the feature film debut of Benedict Taylor.
More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
2 Jun 1980
p. 2.
Daily Variety
29 Jun 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
21 Nov 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Jun 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
22 Aug 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
13 Sep 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
17 Apr 1980.
---
Los Angeles Times
25 May 1980
p. 7.
Los Angeles Times
25 Oct 1981.
---
Los Angeles Times
19 Nov 1981
p. 6.
New York Times
17 Apr 1980
p. 19.
New York Times
20 Oct 1981.
---
Publishers Weekly
3 Sep 1979.
---
Variety
11 Jun 1979.
---
Variety
21 Nov 1979.
---
Variety
23 Apr 1980
p. 18.
Variety
21 May 1980.
---
Variety
20 Jan 1982.
---
Village Voice
9-15 Dec 1981.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
Walt Disney Productions Presents
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod
Co-prod
Assoc prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Addl photog
Cam op
Photog processes
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATOR
Set dec
COSTUMES
Cost des
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
Rec at
VISUAL EFFECTS
Final seq des by
Spec eff
Final seq: Visual eff
Final seq: Visual eff
Final seq: Visual eff
Final seq: Spec photog eff
Final seq: Spec photog eff
MAKEUP
Makeup chief
Makeup for Miss Davis
Hairdressing chief
Hairdresser for Miss Davis
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod supv
Casting dir
Loc mgr
Loc mgr
Cont
STAND INS
Stunt supv
COLOR PERSONNEL
[Col by]
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall (New York, 1976).
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
A Watcher in the Woods
Release Date:
9 October 1981
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 17 April 1980
Los Angeles opening: 20 November 1981
Production Date:
August--2 November 1979
Copyright Claimant:
Walt Disney Productions
Copyright Date:
11 February 1982
Copyright Number:
PA129008
Physical Properties:
Sound
Recorded in Dolby Stereo®
Color
Lenses
Lenses and Panaflex camera by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
83
MPAA Rating:
PG
Countries:
United Kingdom, United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

The Curtis family looks for a house to rent in England while their patriarch Paul, a music composer, conducts an opera. The family is shown a secluded manor house owned by the eccentric Mrs. Aylwood, who lives in a small cottage on the property, set on the edge of a forest. While investigating the manor, youngest daughter Ellie Curtis is drawn to a bedroom overlooking the woods. Older sister, Jan, looks out a window in the adjoining bedroom, and sees a blue glow in the forest as the window shatters. Mrs. Aylwood believes Jan is “sensitive” to signs, and decides to rent to the family. Jan feels that something horrible happened on the property and believes that someone is watching them from the woods, but her mother, Helen, dismisses the girl’s concerns. However, the real estate agent reveals that Jan reminds Mrs. Aylwood of her daughter, who mysteriously disappeared years ago. As the family moves into the manor, Jan carries a large mirror to the living room, and knocks over a telephone. After retrieving the phone, Jan looks back at the mirror, but does not see her own reflection. The glass cracks, revealing the image of a blindfolded girl, and the mirror shatters. The next day, the girls visit a farm with puppies for sale, where they meet local teenager, Mike Fleming. In the barn, Ellie picks out a puppy while Jan and Mike talk. In a trance, Ellie writes “Nerak” on a foggy window, insisting it is the puppy’s name. Mike’s mother, Mary Fleming, approaches the barn and becomes upset upon seeing the name, which ... +


The Curtis family looks for a house to rent in England while their patriarch Paul, a music composer, conducts an opera. The family is shown a secluded manor house owned by the eccentric Mrs. Aylwood, who lives in a small cottage on the property, set on the edge of a forest. While investigating the manor, youngest daughter Ellie Curtis is drawn to a bedroom overlooking the woods. Older sister, Jan, looks out a window in the adjoining bedroom, and sees a blue glow in the forest as the window shatters. Mrs. Aylwood believes Jan is “sensitive” to signs, and decides to rent to the family. Jan feels that something horrible happened on the property and believes that someone is watching them from the woods, but her mother, Helen, dismisses the girl’s concerns. However, the real estate agent reveals that Jan reminds Mrs. Aylwood of her daughter, who mysteriously disappeared years ago. As the family moves into the manor, Jan carries a large mirror to the living room, and knocks over a telephone. After retrieving the phone, Jan looks back at the mirror, but does not see her own reflection. The glass cracks, revealing the image of a blindfolded girl, and the mirror shatters. The next day, the girls visit a farm with puppies for sale, where they meet local teenager, Mike Fleming. In the barn, Ellie picks out a puppy while Jan and Mike talk. In a trance, Ellie writes “Nerak” on a foggy window, insisting it is the puppy’s name. Mike’s mother, Mary Fleming, approaches the barn and becomes upset upon seeing the name, which from the outside reads as “Karen.” Later, at the manor, Jan waits inside while Ellie plays with puppy Nerak at the edge of the woods. After their parents leave for town, Ellie disappears and Jan finds her sister following Nerak. As they reach a pond, blue light flashes over the water and Jan sees a circle of blue beneath the surface. Another flash of blue light knocks Jan into the pond and a branch traps her beneath the surface. Mrs. Aylwood arrives and saves Jan from drowning. At Mrs. Aylwood’s cottage, the girls learn that seventeen-year-old Karen Aylwood disappeared almost thirty years ago on the night of an eclipse. When Mrs. Aylwood discovered Karen was not in her room, she thought her daughter went to the pond, but Karen was not there either. The church bell rang and Mrs. Aylwood ran there, too, arriving just as a blue light struck the building. Three of Karen’s friends, John Keller, Tom Colley, and Mary Pierce, ran screaming from the church as it caught fire. Mrs. Aylwood raced inside to save Karen, but she was not there. Karen’s body was never found and the other teenagers did not know what happened, saying only that Karen was blindfolded as part of a game. Mrs. Aylwood admits that she hears whispers in the wind, and believes Karen is still in the woods. Later, the Curtis family attends a local motorbike race in which Mike Fleming competes, and Jan climbs onto a rock for a better view. Ellie plays with Nerak on a nearby sandpile, but suddenly demands that her sister join her. A collision on the track starts a chain reaction and, as Jan reaches Ellie, a motorbike crashes onto the rock where she just stood. Ellie insists that Nerak wanted Jan to move. When Mike drives Jan home, she tells him about Karen’s disappearance. She wonders aloud if Karen was murdered and still haunts the area. Jan mentions Karen’s three friends, and a surprised Mike admits that his mother’s maiden name is “Pierce” and that Tom Colley is a hermit living in the woods. Mike confronts his mother, who claims the teenagers were playing a game designed by John Keller when a summer storm arose and lightning struck, setting the church on fire. While three of the friends escaped, Mary believes that Karen ran away because it is the only logical explanation. Later, at the manor, Ellie shows Jan a viewer with which they can watch the eclipse that Saturday. The girls go horseback riding with Mike, but their horses spook and run off in two different directions. Mike chases Ellie, who is saved from death when a flash of blue light causes a truck driver to swerve off the road. Meanwhile, Jan’s horse runs to the church, bucks her off, and runs away. Inside the church, a blue light flashes on a coffin and Jan sees the image of a blindfolded girl. She closes her eyes for a moment and the girl is gone, but a man appears. He chases her outside until she runs into Mike. As the man escapes, Mike realizes the stranger was Tom Colley. Jan leads Mike inside the church and a wind suddenly blows, shattering stained glass windows, and two disc-shaped shards, one bearing a solar image, fall into overlapping circles. That night, Tom visits John Keller’s mansion and claims that he saw Karen alive in the church. Although Keller orders the hermit to remain silent on the subject, Tom wonders if Karen is back from the grave to haunt them. When Jan attends a carnival with Mike, she sees images of Karen, blindfolded, in the house of mirrors. Feeling Karen is trapped somewhere, Jan vows to discover what happened that fateful night. She visits Keller, but he refuses to speak. Jan finds Tom’s shack and, once convinced that she is not Karen’s ghost, Tom reveals that they were initiating Karen into their secret society on the night she disappeared. John blindfolded Karen and they encircled her, holding hands as they performed their ritual. In the middle of the ceremony, lightning struck and the bell fell. As Tom ran outside, he looked back but did not see Karen; she was already gone. Later, at Mrs. Aylwood’s cottage, the old woman hears Ellie humming and brings out Karen’s music box, which plays the same tune. As Jan shares the information gleaned from her conversation with Tom, a trance-like Ellie states that they must help Karen very soon. Mrs. Alywood believes Karen is speaking to them, but Ellie insists it is not Karen, and they must open the door. Ellie faints as her mother arrives. Despite the girls’ protests, Helen insists on leaving, but the car stops working as they drive across a bridge. Jan forces them out of the car and off the bridge before lightning strikes and the vehicle falls into a ravine. The next day, Jan examines the eclipse viewer and realizes overlapping circles represent a solar eclipse. Jan telephones Mike and asks him to bring John Keller, Tom Colley, and his mother to the church before the eclipse so they can repeat the ceremony. Mrs. Aylwood learns of the plan and worries for Jan’s safety. Inside the church, Jan takes Karen’s place within the circle and orders Keller to repeat the ritual. Ellie enters, possessed by a being from another dimension who exchanged places with Karen by mistake. Thirty years ago, the magnetic pull of the eclipse transferred their positions, but they can reverse the process with the same ceremony. Light and wind surround Jan, lifting her into the air, but Mike breaks the circle, grabs her, and they fall to safety as the eclipse occurs. Suddenly, Karen appears and removes her blindfold as Mrs. Aylwood enters the church to welcome her daughter back home. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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