Column: Slicing Score: The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

The Watcher in the Woods (1980). Composer: Stanley Myers.

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[dropcap]D[/dropcap]isney movies. What do you think of when you think of Disney movies? Castles? Princesses? Happily Ever After? What, no saurian alien life forms stalking chatty Americans living on the Gothic side of England? If the latter option doesn’t come to mind when you think of Disney movies, then you might have missed The Watcher in the Woods. This film gives its viewers a good yarn that is rife with fear from stars.

The plot concerns an American family moving into an old, gothic English manor. The house is unpopular because of the tragedy associated with the owners. The tragedy is the 30-year unsolved disappearance of the owner’s daughter, Karen. It isn’t long before the two daughters, Jan and Ellie, start becoming aware of a presence haunting the woods outside their new home. The presence is eerie because no one knows what it wants. All Jan and Ellie know is that it’s in trouble and so are they. As long as The Watcher in the Woods has no peace, it won’t let anyone else have peace, either.

There are multiple versions of this movie and it has no unified soundtrack. What makes this forgotten horror score intriguing is that it mimics some of the creepy melodic suspense of both Jaws and Psycho in a way that sounds like the originals, but still sounds different enough to create a new kind of possessive dread.

In a scene where Jan goes into the church, looking for clues that might help explain Karen’s disappearance, she encounters one of Karen’s old friends. This is one scene where the music pumps up the Psycho-meets-Jaws adrenaline. This horror film also used music as a way to introduce the audience to the absent presence of Karen. Karen’s music box is fondly treasured by her mother (Bette Davis). It’s from this music box that the audience absorbs the ghostly presence of Karen because its melody embodies the missing girl.

The score to The Watcher in the Woods may not be the most memorable contribution to film music made by Stanley Myers, but the film certainly wasn’t hampered by its apt suspense and the eerie innocence of Karen Aylwood’s music box theme. The film was hampered by many film editing obstacles. The first version of this film I saw was one edited for TV. In this version, the Watcher is never seen. It wasn’t until I did some research about the film online that I found a picture of the Watcher as it was supposed to appear in the original cut of the film. I was shocked by how grotesque the thing was. This brings up a good question: Is the Watcher more frightening as an invisible presence or as an saurian alien? The Watcher’s presence isn’t dependent on music to elicit fear. What makes the Watcher frightening is how it affects people in the story and how it interferes with earthly forces of nature. The Watcher relies mostly on visuals that show action, but no substance, to create dread.

The Watcher has had no peace ever since it became entrapped on Earth and it has made sure that the people closest to its woods have suffered as much turmoil as it has suffered. The music doesn’t do much to accentuate this unfortunate alien’s earthbound claustrophobia. Part of what made this score less-than-stellar is that the music is too human in this film. The music embodies the presence of the humans, and their perceptions of the Watcher, but not the Watcher. This is a letdown. However, it’s fair to say that the original construction of the Watcher wouldn’t have needed music to make it scary. Here’s a link to an article with a photo of the rather handsome Watcher.

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The Watcher in the Woods is available on DVD on Amazon.com.