There was mystery and horror in the video store. As a boy, I’d go with my parents and browse the endless shelves, chills of dread hitting me as I entered the horror section. The covers were alluring and terrible, promising devastating visions of murder and demonic or mutant monstrosities.
These were the days before the Internet, when television advertising was prohibitively expensive for the independent studios that released many of the world’s genre films. Only the big budget films made it to Hagerstown, MD. This was a town that never ran a Woody Allen film, much less C.H.U.D. or Defcon 4. Unless you were a subscriber to Fangoria, or a similar magazine, your only entree into the world of horror was the box art and the descriptions on the back. The only other marketing channel came in the form of your friends hushed whispers at lunch, intoning with terrible seriousness: “In Faces of Death, they kill real people!”
One of the films that stuck with me the most was Watcher in the Woods, a Disney release from 1980. In those days, Disney was on the wane – the studio’s clout briefly evaporated in the years leading up to The Little Mermaid and the launch of their more adult-focused label, Touchstone Pictures. They were viewed as old-fashioned and too family-friendly, once their strength in the marketplace, but now a severe liability in the age of Home Box Office. Kids in the 1980s were much more sophisticated than their forebears, they didn’t want to be patronized. But what could be more cloying and patronizing than Flubber, The Absent-Minded Professor, or Bedknobs and Broomsticks?
Disney tried to deal with this shift in offering movies with a bit more of an edge, but not too much of an edge. This included The Black Hole, Tron, and yes, Watcher in the Woods.
Watcher in the Woods was unusual in that it was a horror film placed in the family section. A shark, in a pool of guppies. It sat on the shelf generating dread, that caused the other films around it to shudder. The box art was centered on a sinister old woman, a blonde teenage girl at her side. Their eyes gazed out of the box at… something in the middle distance. The old woman wore a black shawl pulled up over her head, framing the intensity of her craggy face. I didn’t know it at the time, but that woman was Bette Davis, legendary screen actress. It was her intensity that exploded out of that box cover, her alone and not the fearful waif by her side that made you want to pick it up and read the back.
I looked at that cover for years, before I decided to rent it. I was terrified, but I had to conquer this monster. The beast must be slain!
In truth, the film wasn’t much of a beast. The film, which Disney executives described naively as “our Exorcist” had been toned down considerably through the course of production. The plot was pretty rote – an American family moves to an English manor, and the teenage daughter becomes embroiled in a mystery involving a landlady (Bette Davis) and her long-missing daughter. In the end, and I apologize if this is a spoiler, it turns out her missing daughter had been taken to another dimension in a weird new age ceremony that the teenage girl must now now recreate. “The Watcher” in the title is actually an extra dimensional being and, through the course of a summoning ceremony, it returns and the girl is brought back.
My initial response was “Oh, that wasn’t so bad,” but it gradually settled into bleak disappointment. I wanted it to destroy my psyche as much as a PG rated film could – I wanted it to mean more. Why was the Watcher just a beam of light? Why was the terrible old woman played by Bette Davis merely a grieving mother and not the dark prophet the box cover suggested?
The reality, obviously, was much different than what was in my head. As I grew older, I began to miss the terrifying films I imagined were inside those VHS boxes – as most of the films were actually terrible. Now, I don’t find many modern horror films particularly scary, relying so much on jump scares and editing to generate terror. It’s a rare horror film that can actually deliver, and none can match what the imagination can easily make itself.