Flashback Friday: Watcher in the Woods

Some people can say that their first exposure to Bette Davis was through one of her classics like All About Eve or Dark Victory or Jezebel—or even that camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? And while I do love me some Baby Jane Hudson, I must confess that my first exposure to La Grande Dame Davis was through what might be one of the more terrifying Disney live-action movies I’ve ever seen: the 1980 “family” horror film The Watcher in the Woods.

First, check out the poster art for this one:

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Actually, this was the poster artwork that Disney did for the film’s DVD release. Still, it does quite a satisfying job of visually summarizing the creepy factor of this movie. Here, watch the trailer:

Lovely, no? So what’s it all about, Alfie? Well, it’s about a family who moves into a manor owned by Mrs. Aylwood, played by Ms. Davis. The family’s older daughter Jan looks remarkably like Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter Karen, who disappeared 30 years ago under still-unexplained but supremely creepy circumstances. Others notice the similarity as well, including a watcher. In the woods.

All together…hilarity thus ensues.

Just as Clue played a memorable role in that portion of my adolescence filed under the “Slumber Party” tab, so, too, did this movie. And while I haven’t seen the film in many a moon, it was memorable enough that it has remained embedded deep in my brain (and might still make me want to have a dog named Nerak) and made me terrified of Bette Davis for years.

[Okay, to be honest, I’m still kind of terrified of Bette Davis. That was a woman you did not want to cross.]

For being a family-oriented company, I have to say that Disney can pull out the stops when it comes to the creepy factor. Plus, there was that stretch of time when the company seemed quite obsessed with the occult. Witchery popery popery witchery. Or something like that. Whatever, the point is, Disney has always liked a bit of occult in their films and this one was no exception.

Does this movie stand up to the passage of time? Well…no, not really. It came out more than 30 years ago. Give it a break. It was top-notch at the time, though, and part of what made it so spectacular was Davis. True, she took some…questionable roles in her later years, but she was Bette Davis. Bette Davis on a bad day puts most actors on their A-game to utter shame.

If you’ve never seen The Watcher in the Woods, give it a try. It might be fun…or at least good for a laugh, depending on how jaded you are. And if you have seen it, then enjoy this clip of the alternate “alien” ending, which I’m quite glad they didn’t use for the film. It’s a bit…no.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Jane Hudson

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Remove the patina of camp that coats What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, thanks in great part to the over-the-top onscreen performances by and even more over-the-top behind-the-scenes battles between leading ladies Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and what you have is one of the most disturbing psychological breakdowns ever put to screen. You also have one of cinema’s most tragic characters in the form of “Baby” Jane Hudson.

I feel torn as to how much I want to write here about Jane. I’ve been a bit more lenient when it comes to revealing certain things about older movies, but to really get into the nitty gritty of why I think she deserves to be lauded as a Lady of Horror May-hem would require significant revelations about this movie, including one that I’m not that keen to give away here. I’d hate to deny anyone the joy of discovering this movie in all its twisted, tortuous glory.

Let it be known, though, that I think Jane Hudson’s downward spiraling is one of the most upsetting and heartbreaking cinematic presentations of mental instability. Baby Jane trumps even that “number one fan” for her inability to process reality in socially acceptable ways. Jane’s unhinged “care” of her sister Blanche, in fact, is quite the precursory permutation of Annie Wilkes’s treatment of Paul Sheldon. Jane believes that she cannot escape her past, either mentally or physically, thanks to the total dependence of Blanche upon her. Theirs is a codependency of chaotically epic proportions, and Jane’s resentment and guilt are equally palpable and poisonous to her already fragile mental state.

Watching Baby Jane’s story the first time might make you laugh. Okay, watching her story the first time will make you laugh. But watch her again. Watch her as you would watch a real person behaving in these ways. Watch her knowing how it all ends. Just watch her.