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Disney’s family-friendly horror films (slumber party favorites)

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Reel Mama: Disney’s family-friendly horror films (slumber party favorites)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Disney’s family-friendly horror films (slumber party favorites)

You might be surprised to know that in the 1980s Disney tried its hand at horror, family friendly, that is.  It’s an unusual genre, and unfortunately you don’t find too many of them around.  They make great slumber party movies, when you find a good one.  Two of these films that were a hit at my slumber parties growing up were Something Wicked this Way Comes and The Watcher in the Woods.  I revisited these two films recently to find out if they stood the test of time, and if I could recommend them.  One is worth revisiting; the other is not.
I’ll give you the one I think you should check out first.  
Lynn-Holly Johnson, Bette Davis, and Kyle Richards
star in The Watcher in the Woods

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
The Watcher in the Woods has all the right ingredients for a slumber party for 8- to 12-year-olds.  The Curtis family is in the market for a new home, and the stately old English country mansion owned by the eccentric Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis) seems perfect.  But oldest daughter Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) doesn’t like it, a feeling that’s compounded when Mrs. Aylwood confronts her and asks if she senses things.  Jan confesses to her mom (Carroll Baker) later that she “had a funny, cold feeling out by the woods, like someone was watching me....Something awful happened here.”  The realtor reveals that Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter disappeared under tragic circumstances when she was Jan’s age.  But what happened remains a mystery, which deepens when a mirror cracks into a triangle shape as Jan examines her reflection, and the strange image of a blindfolded girl appears.  Jan is seeing the missing girl, but how she disappeared, and why, aren’t clear.
The wind, music, and lurking POV shots through the shadowy woods establish the strange presence engineering the action and conspire to raise the hair on your arms. The film builds an engaging mystery. It taps into kids’ fascination with the supernatural with a light tone of gothic horror without ever getting overly intense.  In fact, the film’s strength lies in its power of suggestion.   Even if it seems like the movie is trying too hard to give you the creeps, I have to say that there were moments when it worked on me all these years later, and it will for sure make kids of the right age jump, scream, and want to hide under the covers (again, perfect for a slumber party, right?). The film can seem a bit dated at times, but I don’t think this will distract from children’s enjoyment of the film.  There are a few corny “creepy” revelations that might make parents roll their eyes but will give kids, especially the younger ones, goosebumps.  
Bette Davis found success later in her career playing creepy and often campy roles in films such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Here, she offers a more restrained performance, and she brings the right balance of heartbreak of a grieving mother and a loopy, eccentric air derived from never knowing what happened to her daughter, and a belief that her spirit lurks in the woods beyond.  Davis is the standout performance.  The children are convincing, especially the younger daughter Ellie (played by Kyle Richards).  Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan isn’t stellar but her performance is just fine for this caliber of film.

Adapted from the book by Florence Engall Randall. Screenplay by Brian Clemens, Rosemary Anne Sisson, and Harry Spalding. Directed by John Hough.
Reel Mama’s rating: Appropriate for ages 8 and up.
Plot elements such as the girl being blindfolded are unsettling, and there’s a brief mention that the young girl might have been murdered.  There are several near misses in which the girls’ lives seem to be in danger, but the “watcher in the woods” protects them, including one scene in which a car on fire goes over a bridge. Some of these scenes may be too intense for younger than seven.  There isn’t any profanity for parents to worry about.  
For a good laugh, check out the DVD’s alternate endings, if available.  They are terrible in a wonderfully B-grade, campy way and clearly establish that Disney made the right choice with the current ending. 

Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
Unfortunately, Disney’s other attempt at horror wasn’t so successful.  What began as a promising adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dark morality tale of the same title got muddled in a case of too many cooks (or creative visions, as the case may be).  The film languished in development, as happens all too often in Hollywood with deserving projects, and then the main creative players couldn’t agree on the kind of film they wanted to make.
The premise is intriguing: it’s the 1920s in a small Midwestern town.  A mysterious carnival of wonders comes to town in the dead of night in October.  Two young boys, Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and his blood brother Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), are immediately curious, and explore the carnival, soon discovering that strange and sinister things are happening with the hall of mirrors, the freak shows, and especially the carousel: these attractions seem to be granting the fondest wishes of the townspeople, but at a price.  The owner, Mr. Dark (Jonathon Pryce), is furious when he discovers the boys’ meddling.  He’ll stop at nothing to get them, and he may just be the devil himself.
Sounds good, right?  The film sparked my imagination growing up, and I even enjoyed revisiting it in high school, but unfortunately the film doesn’t hold up for me now.  The film’s pace is painfully slow and would not succeed in holding the attention of a ten-year-old today.  The film promises thrills and chills, but delivers surprisingly few if any genuinely spine-tingling moments.  The special effects are dreadful.  

Several performances do stand out, particularly Jonathon Pryce as he displays real bravura as the diabolical carnival owner, and Diane Ladd as Jim’s wistful and out-of-touch mother.  The boys’ performances are passable.  Unfortunately Jason Robards’ mind seems to be elsewhere during his performance as Will’s father.  This is another missed opportunity for the filmmakers, because they could have brought much more emotional depth to the role for Robards, who simply didn’t have enough to work with.  Pam Grier of all people plays the Dust Witch, one of the main attractions at the freak show, but unfortunately she mainly sits or stands expressionless.

Directed by Jack Clayton. Screenplay by Ray Bradbury.
Reel Mama’s rating: Appropriate for ten and up.  
There is some mild swearing, and several very intense scenes.  Yes, the special effects are bad, but they’ll still be too scary for younger kids.  Mr. Dark tortures one of the townspeople in an electric chair.  There is also a stabbing, and a bolt of lightening electrocutes the villains.  
Oh yes, and there’s a scene with tarantulas.  Lots and lots of them.  They tried really hard to build up a web of intrigue for the film, but it just didn’t work out. 


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