As I touched upon with the post about that awesome Black Hole T-Shirt from the other day. The Walt Disney Studios was really trying to go in a different direction with their theatrical films. Not just with 1979’s The Black Hole, but 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods and even 1983’s adaptation of Ray Bradbuy’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
The Watcher in the Woods was a supernatural/mystery movie directed by John Hough (The Legend of Hell House). It was based off the novel by Florence Engel Randall that first saw print in 1976. At this point it’s pretty evident that the Studio was attempting to capture more of the teenager crowd with their choice of subject matter. I believe the original trailer illustrates that point quite well.
Watch the original Watcher In The Woods trailer
Apparently a week after the film made its debut back on October 24, 1980 the Walt Disney Studio pulled the film from theaters. To be honest I’ve seen various online sources saying this was actually just the test screening. Anyway what we do know is that the audience and the studio were unhappy with the ending. So they put the re-release of Mary Poppins in it’s place while they worked on re-shooting the The Watcher in the Woods. This article from Starlog pretty much states the same thing.
Legendary effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw (Star Wars, TRON) is credited with coming up with the ending audiences saw when the film was released to theaters again on October 7, 1981. He has even been quoted as saying by the end of it all they had “roughly 152 possible endings”.
In total Disney narrowed it down to three possible endings. The first one that had been planned and shot revealed an alien encounter was behind the “supernatural” goings. Sadly they ran out of time to finish the effects shots as the studio mandated it needed to be released on the 50th anniversary of Bette Davis’ legacy as an actress.
What the original audiences or test audiences saw was kind of an amalgam of that concept, but leaving Jan to explain what had occurred. Apparently it wasn’t quite clear and most audiences felt it gave no sense of closure. That the film was ended abruptly. Which is of course why it was re-shot. Thankfully this “alternate ending” can be seen below. I’m sure there was supposed to be some effects work leading Jan to look to the sky and the forest, because if not, she just looks like a crazy person. I do think the Alien, the Watcher is pretty awesome looking myself.
Watch the alternated ending to Watcher In The Woods
When it came time to for the version that is more widely known Disney also began to have second thoughts about the mentions of the occult, and not only re-wrote those scenes but re-shot them as well. Which is why the Alien appears in the final release as a shaft of bright light, taking over Jan’s body to reveal that Watcher had accidentally switched places with Karen 30 years earlier.
Even with the re-shoots The Watcher in the Woods didn’t exactly connect with audiences of the day. In total it only earned five million. I can’t locate an online source that reveals how much the Walt Disney Studios spent, but bear in mind that in 1983 Something Wicked This Way Comes cost nineteen million. I think over the years, The Watcher in the Woods has become something of a cult film. Which is kind of nice, but I certainly remember wanting to see the film myself thanks to those wonderful early 1980s promos. You could find them when renting Disney VHS tapes.