Sunday, July 31, 2016

"The Watcher in the Woods" (1980) d/ John Hough

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1980 wasn't a fantastic year for live-action films released by the folks at Disney, which would later grow into the multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate that none of us could ever get enough of, to be certain. With titles like Midnight Madness, the Popeye musical, The Last Flight of Noah's Ark, and Herbie Goes Bananas to compete with, it shouldn't have taken too much effort for tonight's review, a supernatural thriller from the guy who brought you Howling IV : The Original Nightmare (1988), to achieve "Finest Disney Live Action Movie of 1980" status, with all due respect to David Naughton, Eddie Deezen, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, and a yellow Paul Smith swimming away out to sea, respectively. Does it manage? Read on, and find out...

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You spelled REDRUM wrong, bitch.
The Curtis family moves into a spacious manor on the English countryside that's enveloped by foreboding forest and overseen by it's elderly owner, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), a secretive old sourpuss who looks as though she goes to the same stylist as Christopher Walken. When she sees the family's eldest daughter, Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson), and her striking resemblance to Aylwood's own daughter, Karen, who disappeared mysteriously some thirty years earlier, she feels compelled to lease to the family. Right off the bat, Jan shows an uncanny propensity for making mirrors crack in the same triangular pattern when she stands near to them, and also notices weird blue lights out in the forest. Little Ellie (Kyle Richards) also seems to be a lightning rod for unexplained PG-rated weirdness herself, after buying a puppy and naming it Nerak, spelling it out on a dusty window, which seen backwards happens to spell out Aylwood's daughter's name. Insert fifties-style theremin here. Jan also unwittingly plunges into a nearby pond while gazing at circles in the water, being rescued by Aylwood and her trusty gondola rowing oar. Bo staff? Witch broom? The plot thickens.

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From Ice Castles to Blouse Busters.
Before too long, Jan takes it upon herself to investigate what really happened to Aylwood's daughter all those years ago, and some unseen force seems to be protecting her as she does, with premonitions of doom saving her hide from an out of control exploding dirtbike that would have creamed her for sure, and a lightning-struck Citroen stalled out on a wooden bridge that would have spelled the end for the sisters and their mother (Carroll Baker), as she races to remove her girls from this supernatural presence that seems to be pestering them. Patriarchal Paul (David McCallum) tickles the ivories briefly and fiddles with some sheet music to let the audience know he's a musician for sure, but that's about it. A local wildlife-rescuing gimp named John (Ian Bannen) spills to Jan about the fateful night he and two of his mates took Karen to the abandoned chapel for a secret friendship ceremony that involves "Ring Around the Roses" (Disney, all day) and how she disappeared amidst the flash of lightning, tumbling church bell, and flaming rafters. I'll just bet it's gonna take a recreation of said ceremony using all original parties during a solar eclipse to finally get to the bottom of all this. Call it a hunch.

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"Come, Kyle. Help me to drown Goofy." sneers Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis).
Hough has directed some real genre goodies over the years, from Twins of Evil (1971) and The Legend of Hell House (1973) to The Incubus (1982) and Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and it's sequel. Lead actress Lynn-Holly Johnson, who replaced Disney's first choice in Dianne Lane, is notably awful here, allegedly drawing the ire of Hollywood royalty in Bette Davis on the set, with her speak-shouted dialog delivered in a Sarah Palin-esque accent, with obligatory lifeless stare, to further confound matters. Hear her say words like "cheeaaaapple" (chapel) and "eaaaverage" (average) over and over again in dreadful Chicago-flavored drawl. In her defense, nobody else in the cast is particularly effective, and there's one lifeless exchange/shouting match between Johnson and co-star Ian Bannen that wouldn't be out of place in an H.G. Lewis or Andy Milligan scene. On the plus side, the film's score, as provided by Stanley Myers, is a good one, and Alan Hume's cinematography is impressive throughout. Overall, I feel like two Wops isn't an unreasonable rating, and under the proper circumstances viewers may be able to enjoy the experience despite the shortcomings. Worth a look.

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Even hanging around can be a beautiful experience in polyester from Penneys.
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