This week on Our Daily Trailer, we're discussing the films that most traumatized us as children, and for me it's a tricky question. Disney's The Watcher in the Woods both traumatized and exhilarated me - it's a doubtlessly unnerving film for a kid to watch, PG rating notwithstanding, but it was also my ingress to a lifelong love of horror. The Watcher in the Woods scared me and then taught me that I liked being scared. For that, I owe it big.
The film follows the Curtis family as they move to their new home in an elegant countryside setting. The eldest daughter Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) immediately catches the attention of the landlord Mrs. Aylwood (an alarming Bette Davis), because she resembles Mrs. Alywood's long lost daughter Karen. Jan and her younger sister Ellie both feel drawn to the story of Karen's disappearance, and they are beset by strange occurrences and lights in the woods surrounding their home. Soon they're elbows-deep in a supernatural mystery!
The film, based on the 1976 novel by Florence Engel Randall, was intended to be Disney's Exorcist, and like The Exorcist, there are multiple versions of The Watcher in the Woods out there. The original, planned ending introduces the Watcher as a giant bug alien who swoops Jan to an alternate dimension, where she finds an unaged Karen and brings her home. But the special effects for the alternate dimension weren't finished in time for the initial release, so the ending didn't make a lot of sense and went over poorly with critics and audiences. You can watch it below:
Disney then pulled the film and started work on a different ending, without the help of director John Hough and instead shot by an uncredited Vincent McEveety. This is the ending I recall from childhood, and probably the one you remember, as well: during Jan's seance, the Watcher appears as a beam of light, and then possesses Ellie in order for her to give some much-needed exposition regarding what happened in the unfilmed other dimension. Narratively more coherent, but needs more bug alien.
You can read more about the alternate endings here, and the above version is included as a special feature on the Anchor Bay DVD released in 2004.