A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Watcher in the Wood is a 1980 Disney movie about an American family that moves to an old home in the English countryside where bizarre paranormal events start to occur. Though there is mild suspense and overly familiar horror movie tropes throughout -- glass and mirrors break for seemingly no reason, and there are abrupt cuts from a potentially scary scene to a close-up of a demon in a haunted house in an amusement park, for instance -- there also are scenes in which it appears an elderly woman is drowning a young girl and one in which a girl is thrown off an out-of-control horse that also causes a truck accident. The occult themes could be problematic for faith-centered families, as could a scene in which a church is on fire.
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What's the story?
An American family -- the Curtises -- moves into an old English mansion in the English countryside. The owner of the mansion, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), strikes the two Curtis girls, teen Jan and the younger Ellie, as a bit creepy, especially when she talks of how much Jan looks like her presumably deceased daughter, Karen, who disappeared in a nearby church 30 years prior. Once the Curtises have moved in, strange things begin to occur. Ellie adopts a puppy and inexplicably names it "Nerak," and Jan sees bizarre glowing objects in the woods, including a blue circle that nearly causes her to drown in a pond. Delving deeper into the mystery, Jan and Ellie talk with some of the villagers and learn that Karen never really died but was taken to another dimension through an occult ritual held in a church late one night by some kids 30 years ago. Now, it's up to Karen, Ellie, and those who took part in this ritual to try to find a way to bring Karen back home.
Is it any good?
The scares in THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS make this a rather jarring departure from the typical live-action Disney films of the 1970s and '80s. But the movie is still as dated as the lead teen character's feathered hair and designer jeans. Many of the actual attempts to scare the audience feel gratuitous and forced, having very little to do with the actual story.
Aside from the occult themes, the movie doesn't veer too far from the typical "new family in a house that appears to be haunted" tropes that so often characterize these types of movies; glasses and mirrors break for no reason, the owner of the house is eerie and suspicious, animals lose control of themselves, objects move and explode, and so on. And the special effects, decades after the movie was made, aren't really all that special. It's difficult to imagine modern kids finding this movie anything but corny. The similarities to The Shining (backward writing on mirrors and windows by a seemingly possessed girl, for example) make it uninspiring viewing for grown-up horror fans as well.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about movies centered on haunted houses. What are some familiar aspects to "haunted house" stories in movies, books, and cartoons and on TV shows?
How is this movie similar to and different from other horror movies? What are some of the ways in which the movie startles viewers into feeling scared?
What do you think is the appeal of horror movies? Why do people find entertainment in being made to feel shocked, scared, or startled?
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