The Watcher in the Woods

Theatrical Release: October 7, 1981 / Running Time: 83 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: John Hough

Cast: Bette Davis (Mrs. Aylwood), Lynn-Holly Johnson (Jan Curtis), Kyle Richards (Ellie Curtis), Carroll Baker (Helen Curtis), Benedict Taylor (Mike), David McCallum (Paul Curtis), Frances Cuka (Mary Fleming), Richard Pasco (Tom Colley)


The Watcher in the Woods is an anomaly among the canon of live action Disney films. While the studio has attempted a variety of genres with its output, Watcher is, as far as I can tell, one of the only horror/suspense films bearing the "Disney" name. Not only that, the film breaks through the family-friendly mold with its dark soul and tormented characters. Straying from tradition this one unusual time may not sound like a formula for success, but quite the contrary, Watcher in the Woods is a masterfully done film.

The Curtis family has just moved into an unreasonably low-priced, spacious and secluded house in the English countryside. As one may suspect, it is haunted by a ghost, and as the wiseass father (David McCallum) points out, "What self-respecting old English house mansion would be without one?" The house comes complete with the enigmatic elderly landlord, aptly played by top-billed screen legend Bette Davis. Although Ms. Davis surely had seen better days, she still possesses an undeniable screen presence in her 70s.


Watcher is particularly plot-driven, and the less that is known going in, the more you'll enjoy it. Though the dots may not all connect, and the ending may leave you hoping for a little more, this little-known gem is an exciting and gripping mystery, which is not, as the included trailers repeatedly warn, intended for the young ones. It is effectively eery, particularly in its first hour, with some creepy camerawork contributing to the suspense. The film seems to have inspired, almost certainly indirectly, some of the more skillful recent works in the horror genre such as The Sixth Sense and Final Destination.

The standout performance, besides Davis' creepy supporting turn, is the true star of the film, Lynn-Holly Johnson, who holds her own as the young Jan who is being supernaturally summoned to solve the central mystery.


DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital-EX 6.1 (English),
DTS-ES 6.1 (English)
Subtitles: None
(Closed Captioned)
Release Date: April 2, 2002
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Keepcase, 20-page collectible booklet



As with most films from the late '70s and early '80s that seem an odd place for the "Disney" name to reside, Watcher in the Woods is distributed on DVD by Anchor Bay. Fortunately, this is the finest disc Anchor Bay has issued for a Disney film.

The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and while it might not always mean much, THX has given its Certification. In this instance, it does mean something. This film looks absolutely flawless, the video quality holding up decades later, and presenting the color palette to perfection.

Anchor Bay has included two remixed soundtracks: 6.1 Dolby Digital-EX AND DTS-ES tracks. I won't attempt to compare the two, or even argue in favor or against their being, but both provide a good use of soundfield, which is crucial in playing up the element of intrigue among the mysterious, windy woods. Both Dolby Digital and DTS format trailers are included.


The highlight of the supplemental material is an audio commentary from director John Hough, whose had a mostly forgettable career in film, predominantly in the horror genre, which did provide a few modest hits in the '70s. Most notably, Hough was the man who directed the two Witch Mountain films for Disney (which will be getting the Special Edition treatment when they hit stores in a couple of weeks). The DVD also includes a thorough biography of Hough.

Two alternate endings are provided - interesting, that upon the film's first showings in New York in the spring of 1980, the film was without an ending because the effects couldn't be completed in time. Now on DVD, there is the film's ending that eventually made it for its theatrical run and two others, running 6 minutes and 14 minutes respectively (which the menu kindly tells us). Both extend what exists in the film with footage we haven't seen at all. Both show more of the alien presence. Both are interesting to watch, but neither is particularly satisfying or representative of something that satisfies director Hough, who provides commentary for these endings, which are closed-captioned and presented in 16:9 widescreen and 2.0 Surround.


Three theatrical trailers are included - 2 of which, interestingly enough, make special note that "This is NOT a fairy tale" after announcing "Walt Disney Productions", then follow with the disclaimer you see to the right. There's also an odd 30-second TV spot that seems intended to disarm and intrigue, with little explanation.

This was a rental for me, so I can't confirm it, but there is supposedly, a 20-page collectible booklet with notes on the film and reflections from the cast and crew.


The menus are animated, and yet, subtle and mysterious, if not entirely related to the film. Finally, the THX Optimizer screens for perfecting your video and audio settings are included, which is always nice. The tests conclude with a demo of the rainy night scene.

Interesting to note, that two elements of the film - inability to see one's own reflection in a mirror and motorcycle racing - both turn up in another Disney film released the same year, The Devil and Max Devlin, which is also on DVD from Anchor Bay.


The Watcher in the Woods is an unusual Disney film, but a highly recommended one, particularly for those who prefer horror films with smarts and suspense to those with gore. Not a great choice for young children, but beyond age 8 or so, all should find it enjoyable for at least a rental. If you're familiar with the film, you'll be glad to know that Anchor Bay's fine DVD undoubtedly exceeds the hypothetical DVD that Disney themselves would put together.

The Watcher in the Woods (Disney)
Order Disney's The Watcher in the Woods DVD

Read our review of Disney's DVD

Ultimate Guide to Disney DVD Home
Live Action (1980-Present) Home
DVD Review Index