Flashback Fridays: Into the Woods . . .

You’re a family who has just moved into a mysterious old manor house by a huge woodland.  Your girls soon sense something is amiss as the older one starts sensing a presence watching her and the younger starts to exhibit strange behaviors.  It seems that something is out there . . .

Do you remember:

A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall (Atheneum, c1976)

This is one of those stories that’s probably more teen than tween, but I was fascinated by it as a kid.  It’s also one of the books that I saw the movie for first, and then read the book years later.   Despite some similarities between the two, they are pretty different concepts of similar events.

In both the book and the movie, the mysterious events surround  an old manor house and a the woods that surround it.  Thirty years ago, the owner of the home, Mrs. Aylwood, lost her teenage daughter, Karen under mysterious circumstances.  Now a new family has moved into the manor. The elder daughter, Jan is a teen while the younger, Ellie is likely about ten.  Mrs. Aylwood lives on in the caretaker cottage.  It isn’t long before Jan begins to sense something is out there in the woods.  Something that keeps reaching out to her with mysterious visions and words.   It will be up to the three female protagonists to handle it!

The book is not the most brilliantly written thing under the sun. But I remember being intrigued because it filled in some details and motivations left out in the movie.  One of the bits that doesn’t make it into the movie is that the presence in the woods actually reaches out to not only Jan, but her father through the old television set and shows them images of its own story and why it’s trapped in the woods.   Other than this, what sets the book apart from the movie significantly is the way the book ends.  The strange presence in the woods requires the Mrs. Aylwood, Jan and Ellie to complete a triad of power that can open the door and send it home to its own dimension at the time of the eclipse.  The book ends with the three of them going off into the wood, no notion what the ultimate outcome will be.  There aren’t many books that cut off the plot at such a cliffhanger without a sequel in tow–making it a very strange story indeed.  Not necessarily a satisfying one.

There was a movie made several years later, most surprisingly by Disney–not known for its dark and scary movie themes.  The Watcher in the Woods (1980) movie goes with some of the framework of the plot, but gives it a lot more visual suspense and creepiness.  Most notably, the movie gave the book an ending.  Or, to be exact THREE endings.  In the originally aired ending of the movie, the big special effects ending had not been completed, so a shortened version was aired where most of the ending concludes by way of Jan’s exposition after the fact, which mostly confused things.  Eventually the originally planned ending was added:  with a space alien, a weird space ship and a long explanation at the end.  But the ending that became the standard one took out a lot of the science fictional aspects and went with a more supernatural feel.  Here the explanation of the being is handled during the climactic scene by a possessed Ellie.

This is one of the cases where the movie was so much better than the book.  Suspense was built, creepiness was factored in–and all without there being a really gruesome monster at the heart of it.  The first time I watched this I was about ten and had to turn it off halfway through.  (Mom saw Disney on the VHS tape and thought it’d be light-hearted fare for us to watch).  I watched it later in the daylight and became a fan.  To this day, I still consider it one of the better suspense movies for tweens that exists. Oh, and Bette Davis plays the older version of Mrs. Aylwood–which is pretty awesome too.

Paranormal, eerie horror that doesn’t rely on body count, gore or constant terror to electrify the audience is rare.  It’s my favorite kind–whether in reading or viewing!

Any fans out there?  Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on January 31, 2015, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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