Scary kids scaring kids

Pub date January 7, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

PG TERROR The real magic kingdom is Disney Inc., which has managed to completely dominate family entertainment for at least 70 years, from Snow White (1938) to High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2007). Yet there was a period in the 1980s when the post-Walt studio appeared to have lost its way. The old formulas seemed tapped out, and attempts to find new directions floundered, at least commercially.

Thus there was a rush of incongruously un-Disneyesque titles venturing boldly into PG terrain: 1979 sci-fi thriller The Black Hole (featuring Anthony Perkins’ drilling death); 1980 musical flop Popeye from least-apt-Disney-director-ever Robert Altman; 1981 medieval horror Dragonslayer (which had a priest flambéed in closeup); 1982’s psychedelic Tron; 1985’s seriously depressed fantasy Return to Oz, and so forth. Many of these have since developed cult followings, but they were pretty unloved back then.

One such notable failure — though somehow every kid of the era seems to have experienced nightmares from seeing it — was 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods.

Based on Florence Engel Randall’s young-adult novel, it has the Curtis family — parents Carroll Baker and David McCallum, ex-pro ice skater Lynn-Holly Johnson’s oft-hysterical psychic teen Jan, and child horror-film regular (and eventual Paris Hilton auntie) Kyle Richards as demonically possessed tyke Ellie — renting the requisite spooky old English country mansion from spooky old Mrs. Aylwood (an imperiously restrained Bette Davis), whose own daughter mysteriously disappeared three decades earlier. Myriad inexplicable, near-fatal events targeting Jan point toward an explanation both supernatural and sci-fi.

Watcher‘s tortuous history exemplified a nervous studio’s conflicting impulses. Disney wanted to make something "darker" — or did it? Rewrites lightened up scary material. There were creative arguments and forced changes during filming. Yet the often beautifully atmospheric film’s woes had only begun.

The plug was pulled on completing elaborate F/X for a parallel-dimension climax, making for an abrupt, critically panned ending. This version was yanked from theaters after brief exposure in April 1980. A re-release in even softer form followed 18 months later. No less than three alternative endings were shot; Disney still refuses to release credited director John Hough’s preferred cut. Midnites for Maniacs programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks doesn’t even know which variant will open his "Broken Homes for the Holidays" triple bill. It’s followed by 1986 classic Stand by Me and 1973’s diabolically clever drive-in sleazefest The Candy Snatchers.


Fri/9, Watcher in the Woods (7:30 p.m.), Stand by Me (9:45 p.m.), The Candy Snatchers (11:45 p.m.), $10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120,