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Back to the WOODS at The Aisle Seat

Andy Reviews Anchor Bay's WATCHER IN THE WOODS Special Edition DVD

Plus: Creature Features' SHE-CREATURE and more!

By Andy Dursin

David Fincher's watchable-but-mediocre PANIC ROOM remained atop the box-office for the second straight weekend, with the latest Ashley Judd-in-danger movie (HIGH CRIMES) settling in at #2. The bigger news was that Barry Sonnenfeld's oft-delayed comedy BIG TROUBLE bombed outside the Top Five, confirming that the title is the financial kiss of death for any movie in the United States (even the latest raunchy college flick, NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VAN WILDER, managed to substantially out-gross the Tim Allen/Rene Russo ensemble comedy).

There have been more interesting DVDs to savor at home lately than big-screen fare of interest, topped by Anchor Bay's long-delayed Special Edition of a movie many of us may remember from our childhoods: THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS! My review follows, along with a look at other new releases.


New On DVD

THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (**1/2, 1980-81, 83 mins., PG; Anchor Bay, $19.98): The Disney studio has long treated their somewhat more mature films geared towards older children from the late '70s and early '80s like a skeleton in the closet. Movies like "The Black Hole," "Something Wicked This Way Comes," and "The Watcher In The Woods" have remained on video by virtually flying under the radar, with the former two films -- along with a slew of other live-action pictures -- having been licensed to independent label Anchor Bay for release on DVD over the last few years.

In every instance, you wouldn't know the films were products of the Disney studio: due to company mandates, Anchor Bay was forced to strip the films of any "Walt Disney" credit tags on packaging and even in several trailers found on the DVDs, since the studio was apparently no longer interested in having the films be considered as part of the company's legacy.

Not only is it a miracle, then, that Anchor Bay has been able to release these "cast-off" films at all, but it has also meant that Disney has stood in the way of important film restoration work that would have meant the definitive remastering of titles that -- despite their sometimes dubious critical reputations -- have nevertheless attracted a cult following.

Case in point is the long, long delayed DVD Special Edition of THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS -- the thrice-reshot, 1980 supernatural thriller with Bette Davis -- that was supposed to have been released a couple of years ago in a double-disc Special Edition, but has finally been issued as a severely compromised single-disc release that's only a shadow of what it could have been.

The movie, directed by Hammer vet John Hough, offers a relatively simple story based on Florence Engel Randall's novel: a family moves into a spooky English mansion, where the eldest daughter (Lynn-Holly Johnson from "Ice Castles" and "For Your Eyes Only") begins to see a glowing blue light in the woods, and the apparition of a blind- folded teenage girl crying out for help. It turns out that the daughter of the cranky elderly woman (Bette Davis) living next door mysteriously disappeared during an eclipse over 30 years before, and Lynn-Holly suspects that the girl ISN'T dead, but merely trapped in some kind of parallel universe.

Atmospherically shot and well-scored by Stanley Myers, WATCHER is basically just a supernatural thriller for kids, but when viewed on that level, it works sufficiently well. Sure, Johnson's performance is grating, and the roles of the parents (Carroll Baker and David McCallum) are thankless, but Davis is quite effective and the movie's English countryside locales give the picture a spooky flavor.

Nevertheless, the history of the movie is, in many ways, more interesting than the film itself: shot in 1980, WATCHER IN THE WOODS had its infamous, inaugural preview screening held in New York City, where viewers laughed off the concluding appearance of an extraterrestrial (??) monster that was supposedly behind the girl's disappearance. Following that disastrous screening, the movie's nationwide release was quickly scrapped, and the studio went back to the drawing board, considering other finales and explanations for whatever "The Watcher" was supposed to be.

Finally, after a year of post-production tinkering, a heavily re-worked WATCHER was released in April, 1981. Special effects guru Harrison Ellenshaw -- who oversaw a similar slate of changes on "Something Wicked This Way Comes" just a short time later -- was primarily responsible for the majority of the work, with director Vincent McEveety replacing Hough, who had moved onto other projects.

While quite short (83 minutes) and showing obvious signs of re-editing, this edition of WATCHER IN THE WOODS is the one that viewers are familiar with, and after seeing the original, unused endings, it's also the best version of the film: the ending is more restrained, less absurd, and the ultimate identity of "The Watcher" more interesting than the ridiculous-looking monster that was originally planned.

Just what "The Watcher" was, originally, varies between the original versions of the film: is it a being that bridges the gap between life and death, or is it an alien trapped on Earth? One is left with the assumption that this was elaborated upon in the first version(s) of the film, but because Disney prevented it, Anchor Bay and producer Scott Michael Bosco were unable to include any deleted scenes from the original versions (including a reportedly creepy, excised opening credit roll with a burning doll).

While this obviously proves to be a major disappointment, Anchor Bay WAS permitted to include two versions of the film's original ending -- both featuring the hilarious monster (which looks like Glad trash bags with a jack o'lantern head), and a different actress playing Davis' imprisoned daughter. (Aficionados of Myers' score may be particularly interested in the endings since they contain different musical cues).

The first unused ending (six minutes long) seems to have been the closest to the one first screened in New York City, while the second unused ending (16 mins.) offers additional deleted footage and the long-lost "OTHER WORLD" sequence -- showing not just the monster but the Watcher's alien planet! -- that apparently was never completed or publicly screened in any version of the picture. It's plainly obvious why the scene didn't work, but for fans of the movie, it's fascinating to see this footage for the first time, and to appreciate just how much the finished version of the film was cleaned up and, indeed, improved.

The main problem I have with this compromised WATCHER IN THE WOODS DVD is that it pre-supposes a lot of knowledge about the film that first-time viewers will obviously not have. Scott Michael Bosco's liner notes and interviews were even edited down by Disney (which might explain the abundance of typos), so if they don't read coherently at times, it's because the studio tinkered with the booklet as well as the disc's supplements!

The DVD boasts a commentary track by director John Hough, but he's unclear about certain details, and because his track was recorded early in the disc's production -- back when Anchor Bay wanted to include a fully restored original cut -- there are moments when he discusses how the movie has been restored, etc., when unfortunately Disney would not allow it. That said, Hough does share a handful of interesting anecdotes about his career -- particularly how he was going to direct a pair of James Bond films in the event of Roger Moore's early retirement (with a "secretly tested" David Warbeck ready to take over as 007), plus one of the "Jaws" sequels.

It also would have been nice to have the various endings and screenings of the film clearly addressed (what was screened, where, when was it released, withdrawn, etc.), but alas, this is basically just a superior presentation of the released version, with a pair of excised endings as supplements.

Still, it's better than nothing at all, and Anchor Bay has spruced up the film with an excellent 1.85, THX-approved transfer, which is only slightly grainy and boasts strong colors. The DTS and Dolby Digital 6.1 soundtracks are fine, providing a solid sound mix for the music, dialogue and effects. Like a lot of early Dolby Stereo soundtracks, there aren't a whole lot of separation effects, but the re-mix is excellent considering the age of the soundtrack itself.

Three original trailers and TV spots are included, along with the before- mentioned 20-page booklet, featuring interviews with the cast and crew. Interestingly, one of the trailers opens with a credit scroll about Disney "ushering in a new decade of entertainment," concluding with a warning to parents that they should pre-screen the movie before kids!

For a lengthy analysis of the DVD's production woes, and to read the author's complete, unedited interviews, visit Scott Bosco's Digital Cinema webpage at http://www.thedigitalcinema.net

THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS will always be regarded as an obscure footnote in the history of the Disney studio, but for nostalgic twenty and thirty-year-olds, and for cult movie fans, Anchor Bay's DVD -- while not all it was supposed to be -- is still a highly recommended purchase. Buy it before Disney reconsiders that this WATCHER is out there at all!


Also New On DVD

SHE-CREATURE (**1/2, 2001, 89 mins., R; Columbia TriStar, $24.95): There have been various attempts over the years to remake B-movies from the '50s, and this inaugural "Creature Features" presentation from the late Samuel Arkoff, effects-meister Stan Winston, and actress Colleen Camp marks the latest attempt at recapturing the fun, spooky thrills of yesteryear.

SHE-CREATURE stars Rufus Sewell as a turn-of-the-century (make that 20th century) carnival manager, who -- along with fiancee and troupe leading lady Carla Gugino -- stumbles upon the discovery of a real, genuine mermaid in the mansion of old Aubrey Morris (making his first noteworthy genre appearance since our old favorite, LIFEFORCE).

Wanting to dazzle American audiences with this incredible, spectacular attraction, Sewell and company manage to steal the mermaid and bring her aboard their boat to the U.S., but -- much like the warnings that Zach Galligan failed to heed in GREMLINS -- they decide to neglect old man Morris' statement that the mermaid actually turns into a disgusting, medusa-like monster most nights of the week, ripping the throats out of the innocent in the process.

Although there are some modern touches like extra blood and a bit of nudity, SHE-CREATURE is remarkably restrained and surprisingly well-directed by Sebastian Guiterrez, who also penned the film's screenplay. Despite the premise, this is almost more of a psychological chiller than an outright horror movie, with the long-promised monster appearing only fleetingly at the end, and most of the action comprised of dialogue between Carla Gugino and the mermaid, whose motives are never clearly spelled out until the later stages of the drama.

It's the kind of character interplay that may make some genre aficionados recall Val Lewton's classic RKO chillers from the '40s, though SHE-CREATURE could have benefited from the more abbreviated length of the Lewton films (60-70 minutes), since its too-leisurely pacing grows tedious after 90 minutes. It takes an awfully long time for the main story to kick in, and while Guiterrez does a fine job establishing characters, the film visually resembles a typical made-for-cable yarn: it lacks the visual atmosphere that was virtually a character all by itself in the Lewton films.

Still, SHE-CREATURE is certainly a game attempt at replicating old-school horror in the 21st century, and marks the first in a handful of Creature Features productions to follow (Dan Aykroyd in "Earth Vs. The Spider" is up next!).

Columbia's DVD offers solid full-frame and 1.85 transfers. On the audio end, the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound features a few rumbles of thunder (plus a relatively understated David Reynolds score), but the dialogue track is weak and will force you to turn up the volume quite often to comprehend it. A nice making-of-featurette is included, plus a coming attractions reel for the Creature Features series, and a commentary track with Stan Winston and Shane Mahan.


ALL THE RIGHT MOVES (**1/2, 1983, 90 mins., R; Fox, $19.98)
LESS THAN ZERO (**1/2, 1987, 98 mins., R; Fox, $19.98)

Fox reissued several '80s favorites last month, including a pair of entertaining guilty pleasures that continue to get frequent showings on standard cable outlets.

All The Right Moves is best described as the Varsity Blues of its day: Tom Cruise, in one of his first lead roles, plays a small-town football star wanting to attend a big-time college and break free of the small, rural Pennsylvania hometown he lives in. Craig T. Nelson, fresh off Poltergeist, essays the headstrong coach he locks horns with, while Lea Thompson appears in a pre-Back to the Future part as Cruise's love interest.

A rare directorial outing for veteran cinematographer Michael Chapman, All The Right Moves is a short, predictable, but highly watchable drama that offers atmospheric locations (filmed on-location in Johnstown, Pa.) and good performances by the cast, which also includes Chris Penn. The movie isn't any kind of classic, but there are some effective moments in Michael Kane's script and the flavorful locations make All The Right Moves worth a look for teen movie fans and Cruise aficionados.

Less Than Zero comes from a different era: the mid-to-late '80s, where John Hughes' films set a standard for all youth pictures, and the alumni of those outings began to appear in a myriad of projects -- some more successful than others.

This 1987 drugs-are-bad-but-even-worse-for-the-filthy-rich effort is a guilty pleasure all the way: you have Andrew McCarthy as the good guy whose pal (the all-too- appropriately cast Robert Downey, Jr.) succumbs to drug addiction in Beverly Hills, plus Jami Gertz -- back in her appealing Solarbabies/Lost Boys days -- as Downey's girlfriend and James Spader beginning to cultivate his smug bad guy persona as a drug dealer. Look close and you'll even see Brad Pitt in an early part.

Based on Bret Easton Ellis' novel, Less Than Zero is often tough to take, but it's still admirable for Downey's performance (one of his best, and made even more heartbreaking by his well-documented real-life problems), and the appearances of many familiar faces. Thomas Newman's soundtrack isn't anything extraordinary, but as one of the composer's earlier efforts, it's nevertheless interesting.

Both DVDs feature 1.85 transfers and trailers. Surprisingly, Less Than Zero's soundtrack has been encoded as 4.0 Dolby Digital, while All The Right Moves has been given an overhauled 5.1 remastered mix. Transfers and soundtracks are acceptable on both discs.


STRICTLY BALLROOM (***, 1993, 94 mins., PG; Miramax, $29.95)
ROMEO & JULIET (**1/2, 1997, 120 mins., PG-13; Fox, $19.95)

The success of Baz Luhrmann's gaudy MOULIN ROUGE was surely the catalyst for these Special Edition DVD re-issues of the filmmaker's earlier work, both re- packaged in artwork clearly influenced by the Nicole Kidman-Ewan McGregor musical.

1993's STRICTLY BALLROOM remains, in many ways, Luhrmann's most satisfying film since it doesn't take itself TOO seriously, and doesn't go for outrageous, excessive gags the way ROMEO and ROUGE ultimately did. Paul Mercurio stars as a championship ballroom dancer paired with newcomer Tara Morice -- their quest for the gold resembles "Cinderella," "Rocky," and other inspiring tales, but the film's script is filled with laughs and amusing, colorful characters. Whenever Luhrmann attempts to convey the film's message ("A Life Lived In Fear Is A Life Half Lived"), he comes off as heavy-handed and pretentious, but fortunately that's something that doesn't happen all that often in this charming little film.

Miramax's Special Edition DVD is a bit pricey given its new extras. Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin, and cinematographer John O'Connell contribute an OK commentary track, often chatting as much about the success of ROUGE and their collaborative work as STRICTLY BALLROOM itself. A half-hour documentary, "Samba To Slow Fox," is included, along with animated menus. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is fine, and the 1.85 transfer colorful and near-flawless.

Fox's price is more appealing, and the supplements more interesting, on their new DVD of Luhrmann's 1997 effort WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO & JULIET, even though this is -- much like "Moulin Rouge" -- the kind of movie that you're either going to love or hate.

Luhrmann's in-your-face filmmaking and the gaudy visuals make for a bumpy, contemporary "re-conceptualization" of the Shakespeare play, and like "Moulin Rouge," the movie starts off with a bombastic blast that will force many viewers to instantly reach for the remote control. If you can survive it, you may find yourself compelled to watch the rest of this stylish, if highly uneven, production, which is made palatable by the lead performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes. They manage to strike a chemistry amongst the shenanigans of Luhrmann's film, which includes a goofy supporting cast (Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, and Paul Sorvino among them).

Fox's 2.35 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack are both superlative, while the DVD adds a plethora of special features: commentary from Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, cinematographer Don McAlpine and co-writer Craig Pearce, cast and crew interviews, music videos, trailers & TV spots, and separate featurettes/galleries on the cinematography, production design, Luhrmann's storyboarding, and more.

For the price, it's a substantial upgrade on the earlier DVD, and if you are a fan of the movie, the disc is highly recommended.


ON THE LINE (**1/2, 2001, 86 mins., PG; Miramax, $29.95): The Aisle Seat has covered many diverse films over the last five years, so why not add a teen comedy featuring a pair of guys from the pop group *Nsync to the mix?

As inoffensive as a typically mundane Monkees or Herman's Hermits musical- comedy from the '60s, On The Line offers Lance Bass and Joey Fatone as a pair of Chicago pals who stumble across beauty Emmanuelle Chiriqui on the Windy City tracks. Alas, Bass misses his chance to ask her out, so the two spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to track her down -- including placing an ad and interviewing a bevy of lovely young ladies in the process. This being a PG-rated affair, few romantic sparks ensue, though the performances are surprisingly appealing and kids should groove to the bubblegum-pop soundtrack of *Nsync, Mandy Moore, Vitamin C (oh yeah!), and, of course, Britney Spears. Face it: this movie wasn't made for you or me, but I have to admit I kind of enjoyed the picture just the same, and the family-friendly script (with a commendable lack of crass jokes) is perfectly appropriate for most kids.

Miramax's super DVD looks and sounds great, offering a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack and 1.85 transfer, plus a slew of special features: audio commentary, deleted and alternate scenes, outtakes, featurettes, music videos, cast interviews, the trailer and more.


NEXT WEEK: Back with more reviews and comments. Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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