Disney's Creepy '80s Horror Movie You Have To See To Believe

Disney has become synonymous with family-friendly films, seldom crossing the line into anything that may be perceived as "scary" or "upsetting." Disney Channel Original Movies are notorious for their Halloween fare, but with the exception of the criminally underrated "Don't Look Under The Bed," even their spookiest films are rated-G for general audiences. When Disney+ was first announced, I was thrilled to revisit the weird and forgotten Disney movies of my youth, but unfortunately, there are still some films that Disney has decided to keep in the vault after all these years. One of those films is the 1980s anti-fairy tale, "The Watcher in the Woods."

Growing up, I was fortunate to live just three blocks down from my local Mom & Pop video store, and I had standing approval from my parents with the owners to rent whatever my little monster kid heart desired. As luck would have it, the shop had a VHS copy of "The Watcher in the Woods," the story of an American family who moves into a British country house plagued by malevolent spirits, namely, the ghost of the longtime owner's daughter who torments the new family's young daughter. Before you get too excited and think the House of Mouse made a bonafide slasher or something, know that the film was definitely creepy but in a similar vein as something like "The Changeling" or "The Lady in White."

Disney Told Children Not To See The Film

It's hard to remember a time when Disney wasn't the most dominant force in entertainment, but until the Disney Renaissance from 1989 to 1999, the studio was definitely riding the struggle bus. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Walt Disney Productions was doing their best to attract older audiences, as their family-friendly offerings weren't performing as well as they'd liked. This is how we ended up with films like "Escape to Witch Mountain," "The Island at the Top of the World," "The Black Hole," and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," all films that people frequently forget are Disney-made due to their content. In 1980, Disney tried their hand at horror and the result was the film adaptation of Florence Engel Randall's 1976 young adult Gothic sci-fi novel, "A Watcher in the Woods." Knowing their reputation for kid's movies, Disney actively told small children not to see the film, which only added to the film's allure.

The former home owner is Mrs. Aylwood, played by Bette Davis who has at this point proven herself in "hagsploitation" horror films. The youngest American girl, Ellie, was played by Kyle Richards, just two years after her role in John Carpenter's "Halloween." What starts out as a pretty standard haunted house movie slowly turns even creepier, as Ellie's sister Jan discovers the town locals were screwing with dark magic during a solar eclipse. Thinking she's solved the case, Jan decides to recreate the ceremony during another solar eclipse in the hopes it will bring Mrs. Aylwood's daughter back. Dancing with the dark arts is a bit much for Disney, but in 1980, they were hoping the film would be popular enough to help save their failing company.

A Cult Favorite

"The Watcher in the Woods" received terrible reviews and only ran for a short time in theaters because of it, but critics have often hated horror movies, so take that with a grain of salt. The film was shot in the same house used by Robert Wise in 1963's "The Haunting," which adds an extra oomph of spookiness to those that know their haunted house movies. Sure, some of the special effects have aged like a glass of milk in the sun, but the storytelling and atmosphere are still surprisingly effective. In one particular moment, Jan slips into the pond and looks as if she's going to drown, and the scene elicits a similar anxiety as watching Artax the horse struggle to escape the Swamp of Sadness in "The Neverending Story." We see Jan under the water, staring at Mrs. Aylwood above her and trying to get out. It's genuinely terrifying because Jan really does look like she's about to drown in front of our eyes.

Despite the film's negative reviews, "The Watcher in the Woods" developed a cult following and was even given the made-for-TV remake treatment in 2017 featuring Melissa Joan Hart and Anjelica Huston. Parents are frequently looking for transitory horror films to help bridge the gap between certifiable children's films to hard-R horror, and "The Watcher in the Woods" is a perfect addition, if only Disney+ would release this beast from the vault.