If you asked me to guess which 1980’s Disney film was being remade in 2017, The Watcher in the Woods wouldn’t have been my first answer. But this obscure cult classic gets a second chance on October 21st with the Lifetime premiere of The Watcher in the Woods. Before diving into this retelling, I decided to revisit the original, which I hadn’t seen in at least a decade.
The original film from 1980 is slow paced and contains some textbook overacting. It stars Bette Davis, who doesn’t get enough screen time, and the rest of the cast are more or less unfamiliar faces. As dull as the film is, it takes a surprising turn away from the supernatural and towards a surprising science fiction ending that continues to puzzle audiences to this day. Even stranger is the original ending, which was pulled from theaters and reshot (the first ending is a bonus feature on the Disney DVD release).
The updated film is produced by Hartbreak Films for Lifetime, a network that Disney co-owns. Melissa Joan Hart directs her second film for the network and does a fantastic job with the material. Compared to the original, this new Watcher in the Woods has better pacing, better acting, and a more satisfying ending. I was familiar with Harts directorial efforts for various TV series, but she proves herself more than capable of handling features and I’m eager to see her transition to the big screen in the near future. She is absolutely ready for more.
The film centers around the Carstairs family, who have moved to Wales for the summer and taken temporary residence in Aylwood Manor on the edge of a forest that all of the residents avidly avoid. When the oldest daughter Jan begins to hear strange whispers from the woods, she learns that Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter vanished without a trace in them in the 80’s. When Jan’s sister begins to write cryptic messages on mirrors and talk in her sleep, Jan discovers that the voices and the girl’s disappearance may be related and is determined to solve the mystery.
The biggest star in this version is Anjelica Huston, who absolutely steals the show as Mrs. Aylwood. You would expect a living legend to play a role that was last performed by Bette Davis and Huston was inspired casting. The character is capable of being aloof and guarded while nurturing, not an easy feat and she proves herself an expert at her craft in this role. Emmy voters, please take notice.
While the pacing has vastly improved, the film’s biggest challenge is that it’s still slow to start. However, I greatly appreciate the real history that is folded in at the beginning and it surprisingly pays off later. It might come off as dull at first, but there’s a great payoff for viewers that stay through the end.
Having little affinity for the original, I strongly feel that this is the better of the two versions of The Watcher in the Woods. It’s still essentially the same story, but provides a more satisfying ending, better acting, and improved pacing. If you’re looking for a new spooky film to enjoy with the entire family, look no further – The Watcher in the Woods is the film you’re looking for.
The Watcher in the Woods premieres on Saturday, October 21st, at 8:00 pm on Lifetime.