FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological. psychological, metaphysical*
Disney's THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS feels like a standard haunted-house plot at times-- supposedy one of the publicists called it "Disney's EXORCIST"-- but in keeping with the novel its true core is a story of alien possession, albeit a benign one. To further complicate the matter, the Disney studio seems to have been antsy of having its name associated with anything too racy or visceral. Thus WATCHER’s thrills are kept to a low level. Nevertheless, there are some enjoyably spooky moments here.
As with many haunted house stories, this one deals with an entire family moving into an unfamiliar domain. Here it’s an American family, the Curtises, who rent a country house in England from an eccentric old widow, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). Though the family includes two parents and two daughters, the parents are negligible as characters, and the preteen daughter Ellie only serves minor plot-functions. Teenaged Jan Curtis (Lynn Holly-Johnson) is the focal character here. When she first enters the rental house, she sees a figure in the mirror that resembles her, but one wearing a blindfold. In addition, every time she ventures into the surrounding woods, something strange happens. She sees the image of a circle in a pond, but an electrical flash startles her into falling in, and she almost drowns. Yet later the same strange force in the woods intervenes to prevent Jan from being struck by an out-of-control motorcycle, and to divert a truck from running down Ellie.
Mrs. Aylwood later tells Jan that thirty years ago the widow lost her own teenaged daughter Karen. Karen was playing some ill-defined “game” with three other teens in an abandoned chapel, but lightning struck the building. The other three teens fled, but Karen was never found.
Note: I have not read the novel, but based on summaries, this does not appear to have been the novel's reason for Karen's disappearance, but may have been an invention for the John Hough-directed film, which was plagued by many rewritten scripts.
Mrs. Aylwood believes that she still senses strange presences in the woods. She becomes convinced that both Jan and to some extent Ellie have some mysterious rapport with her vanished daughter. Jan makes it her crusade to find what happened to the vanished Karen. She enlists the help of local swain Mike, whose mother was one of the three teens who escaped the cataclysm. The mother, now middle-aged, won’t talk about the incident, nor will one of the two middle-aged men. The second man, who lives in the forest (one of Disney’s many woodspeople-characters), shows him to be more traumatized by Karen’s disappearance.
He reveals that the three of them brought Karen to the chapel to be initiated into their “secret club.” In a more adult-oriented work, one might rightly assume that some sexual hanky-panky lurked behind this ritualistic endeavor. But in WATCHER it seems to have been nothing but an adolescent version of, say, Tom Sawyer and his young comrades playing pirates. Slowly Jan begins to learn the nature of the force that abducted young Karen, and to understand a way to re-enact the ritual of an elder generation so as to end the haunting.
Though the script lathers on some science-fictional explanations, what WATCHER delivers is akin to a mélange of motifs borrowed from (1) stories of fairy child-theft, including the wrinkle of the faeries leaving behind one of their own kind in the human child’s place, and (2) the haunted-house poltergeist, which continually bedevils humans for trying to live on the site of a past tragedy. Though the alien force turns out to be essentially benign, its ambivalent actions strongly resemble the descriptions of alien-abduction, in which the alleged aliens act no less chimerically than Old World faeries. WATCHER’s emphasis on circle-imagery springs from a functional root, in that Jan must decipher one such image in order to re-enact the ritual during a fateful eclipse. But circles also connote wholeness. Ironically, Karen is severed from her people by an innocent ritual meant to connote her “becoming one” with the other teens in her culture. It remains for Jan, heroine of another generation and from another country, to achieve true wholeness by uniting the past with the present, and to liberate from their guilt those who are only guilty of an innocent transgression.
The official ending of WATCHER on the current Disney DVD never shows the nature of the alien force, but the DVD contains two long-unscreened alternate endings. In one the alien being—a gruesome thing with bat-wings—appears to spirit Jan off like some “demon lover,” yet allows both Jan and Karen to return. In the other ending, Jan is actually seen freeing Karen in the abstract-looking alien dimension. I’d say Disney’s official ending is the strongest, for it involves the alien force using Ellie as its mouthpiece, thus bringing the possession-theme around to “full circle.”