The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Earlier today, I wrote about how I’ve been upgrading my DVDs to Blu-rays, where I can, what with studios being pretty selfish in some cases. About a week ago, I learned that several Disney live-action films that I enjoy and own can only be purchased through the Mouse’s old-fashioned subscription service, like the old Columbia House Record Club. Among these treats: The Watcher in the Woods. Well, you can pay through the nose for them one at a time on eBay, or you can count that there’s six you want, and five you’re obliged to buy, and sign up. Unfortunately, Watcher has yet to arrive, and I wasn’t going to delay watching this on Halloween weekend, so the DVD’ll do.

Hmmm. Hope the Blu-ray’s got these two alternate endings on it. Wonder what that’s about? (*reads) Oh! Wow!

Anyway, I remember a little stir when Watcher was released, and the media started asking whether it was too scary for children, and why Disney had suddenly started making horror films. I didn’t remember the fuss about it being yanked from theaters for more than a year, with Vincent McEveety called in to give John Hough’s film a new finale. Maybe that’s why David McCallum unceremoniously vanishes from the movie halfway through.

Anyway, Watcher was based on a novel, and the great Brian Clemens was called in to adapt it. Feels a lot like what he did was basically pen an episode of Thriller, right down to the token American girls in jeopardy. As we frequently saw in that anthology series, a British man is married to an American woman, played here by Carroll Baker, who was actually the American lead in a 1976 Thriller. They have two girls, and they get involved in a freaky series of supernatural events that has something to do with the mysterious disappearance of Bette Davis’s character’s daughter thirty years ago. Clemens’ script was rewritten by three others, including Gerry Day and Rosemary Anne Sisson, and apparently they still cocked up the ending and it had to be reshot months and months later.

Despite the remarkably troubled production, the finished product is still a really solid ghost story for the Goosebumps-age crowd, helped by some fabulous photography and some great camera tricks. We all enjoyed the way that something unseen is constantly following characters from the woods, and how the massive winds that whip up around them feel so much like part of the forest. There are weak links, certainly. The three witnesses to the original incident are incredibly unbelievable when they insist on refusing to talk about it, and Lynn-Holly Johnson, who plays the older daughter, is Michael Caine-in-The Swarm-level intense. But it simply looks so impressive and so real that these are just quibbles. It’s a very nice looking scary movie for younger viewers.

Our son enjoyed it, but it didn’t leave him half as rattled as Sleepy Hollow did last week. Hmmmm. Maybe we should have gone with Watcher a year ago. The media forty years ago was wrong, unsurprisingly. This isn’t too scary for children at all.

Young Indiana Jones 3.3 – Istanbul, 1918

I kind of admire the way this episode, written by Rosemary Anne Sisson, throws you in at the deep end. In continuity terms, Indy’s been stationed in Istanbul under the identity of a Swedish journalist called Nils Andersson for something like five or six months. This is a proper trenchcoats-and-fedoras spy story, with Indy trying to determine which of six agents in his command is working for the Germans. Unfortunately, director Mike Newell gave it away far, far too early. It could have been a great, paranoid thriller, but when the audience knows more than the lead character, that’s kind of hard to manage.

The audience also knows that Indy’s latest romance won’t last. In Young Indiana Jones terms, it’s by far his longest relationship. He and an American girl named Molly, who works at an orphanage, get engaged, which kind of dooms her. Indy also has the gall to propose to her when she still thinks that he’s a Swede named Nils, which is more evidence for the “Indiana Jones is a complete jerk” argument. Nevertheless, her inevitable death is still a little bit tragic, unless you’re our favorite seven year-old critic. “Was that sad?” I asked him as she died in Indy’s arms. “Nope,” he said, unimpressed.

Young Indiana Jones 2.10 – France and Germany, 1917

The first half of the Attack of the Hawkmen story was pretty entertaining, but the second half is great fun! It starts a little slow, and I was a little worried about our son’s attention span, but he was extremely pleased.

Indy’s second mission as “Captain Defense” for French intelligence is to get an offer in the hands of the Dutch aircraft designer Anthony Fokker, who is working for the Germans, and await a reply. But he misses Fokker in Hanover and must follow him to an aircraft manufacturing plant outside Ahlhorn. Fokker is accompanied by General Von Kramer – Jon Pertwee! – and so Indy has to sneak around and pose as Fokker’s valet to get the letter to him. But Indy can’t leave just yet. The Swiss designer Villehad Forssman is also at Ahlhorn with his prototype of a gigantic airplane, which Indy feels he needs to photograph. Then a familiar face turns up, somebody who could recognize him: Manfred von Richtofen!

How could you not love this? It’s terrific fun, watching Indy think on his feet, improvise, and take on new identities. He’s forthright and bumbling at the same time, and as events spiral out of control – you don’t introduce a huge room where hydrogen is being extracted from water and where cigars are banned without planning to blow it up real good – our son was in heaven. This ends with a terrific fight, lots of fire, and, of course, some wonderful explosions. Fortunately, when Indy secreted away his means of escape, we saw him check to make sure he picked one with a full tank of gas.

This was Jon Pertwee’s last television performance, incidentally. I think it was made in the summer of 1995, and first shown on American TV in October. He passed away in May of 1996. Pertwee was actually the second Doctor to appear in Young Indy. Colin Baker appears in one of the earlier-produced episodes (1992-93, I think) that was never shown in the US. It’s set seven months after the events of this hour, and we’ll get to it in about three weeks.

Young Indiana Jones 2.9 – France and Austria, 1917

We rejoin Young Indiana Jones in the first half of the Attack of the Hawkmen TV movie. This was one of the four films made for the old Family Channel in 1995 and it’s really fun. Our son enjoyed all the World War One flying ace stuff. I was very impressed with the production. If you squint hard, you can tell where they cut in some CGI material, but they also wrecked a couple of prop planes in fields. I’d like to think that the stunt pilots enjoyed the challenge!

In the episode, Indy and Remy have returned to Belgium after their months in Africa and have been reassigned to intelligence work. But Belgian intelligence is hopelessly, laughably, behind the French and the British, so Indy forges a transfer for the two of them to Paris. Remy gets a sweet job working with the resistance in Brussels, but Indy gets sent to work as an aerial reconnaissance photographer, and, on his first day out, his pilot gets shot down by “Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, who invites the young American back to his aerodrome for lunch.

We enjoyed the heck out of this one. The script for both hours within Hawkmen is credited to Matthew Jacobs, Rosemary Anne Sisson, and director Ben Burtt, but I’m not sure whether Jacobs wrote the first hour and Sisson the second, or if it was a true collaboration. Marc Warren, who would later play the amazingly creepy Man with Thistledown Hair – one of television’s greatest villains – in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is the Red Baron, and while he doesn’t get a lot of screen time or opportunity to dominate things, he does get some pretty choice moments, especially when he makes eye contact with Indy in the air to let him know what he thinks of a photograph that had been taken a few days previously.

I mean, really, how could you not love an hour of TV where it’s revealed that Indiana Jones came up with the idea for Manfred von Richthofen painting his airplanes red?

Young Indiana Jones 1.14 – London, 1916

I knew that my wife would enjoy the scene in this episode where Indy and his new girlfriend Vicky try to one-up each other over their bank of languages. She’s conversant in a couple and interested in many others. Maybe it’s stretching credulity just a tad to have two people in London who are fluent in French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Arabic, Greek, and Swedish meeting cute after a suffragettes’ meeting, but it sure is fun to watch. Indiana Jones doesn’t, at this time in his life, know Welsh, it turns out.

I also knew that our son would be bored out of his skull by this one. It’s built around Indy and Vicky Prentiss falling in love while waiting for his call-up from the Belgian army, where he and Remy have enlisted. It’s not tremendously exciting, basically. It’s an absolutely terrific character hour, and the producers hit the jackpot in casting Elizabeth Hurley as Vicky, but our son tuned out just like the TV audiences in 1993 did, when this ran as the second episode. Also in the cast this time in small parts are Julian Fellowes, who would later create the popular hit Downton Abbey, and Pauline Melville, who had played Vyvyan’s mum, the shoplifter, on The Young Ones ten years previously.

The episode also marks the last chronological appearance of Miss Seymour in what we get to see of Indy’s story. It’s kind of weird how ABC ran these and literally gave us the character’s first appearance in week one and her last appearance in week two, with all the other stories with Younger Indy coming later. Interestingly, visiting Miss Seymour was actually our son’s favorite part of the episode!

Here’s another downside to the way they edited these episodes into the sausage-link movies: we lost Indy’s reunion with Vicky. From what we see here, Indy and Vicky never meet again. But the TV episodes were bookended by the 94 year-old Indiana Jones, played by George Hall, telling his stories to whomever will listen. Admittedly, some of these were pretty amazingly nonessential, as the writers struggled for any tenuous reason to connect an event in the present day with an element of one of the episodes, but the bookends for this story were not. In the bookends for “London, May 1916,” Indy reconnects with a 90-something Vicky, played by Jane Wyatt from the classic sitcom Father Knows Best, who then joins him in two or three of the other bookends. We were meant to understand that Indy’s first great love was with him again at the end of his days, but I think George Lucas later decided that we were never meant to think that Indiana Jones ever had the end of his days.

That’s all from Young Indiana Jones for now, but we’ll start looking at the character’s War Years in July. Stay tuned!

Young Indiana Jones 1.10 – Peking, 1910

In the chronology, the Peking episode is the last of the ten hours to feature Corey Carrier as Younger Indy, but I think that it might have been the third one produced, and it also might have been planned as the third one with this cast to air.

When ABC first gave The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles its six week run in the spring of 1992, they showed the Curse of the Jackal movie (“Egypt, 1908” and “Mexico, 1916”) and five one-hour installments. Merchandising takes a little while to get circulating, and it wasn’t until the summer that we started seeing tie-in material. There were chapter books and coloring books, sticker albums and magazines, and trading cards issued by a company called Pro Set. These were very interesting: the cards told the storyline of the episodes of the first season, except they added the Peking adventure, which was written by Rosemary Anne Sisson, before the show’s closing two-parter.

Did ABC originally plan to show six episodes after the movie? We can only speculate, but ever since I saw those cards, I have believed that they intended to show this story on April 1 1992, with the German East Africa/Congo 1916/17 episodes on April 8 and 15. The network got cold feet after the poor critical reception to the first half of Jackal, and quietly moved this one into limbo. It finally aired in June 1993, after the show had been canceled.

It’s really too bad that the Younger Indy stories weren’t better received, but they’re still not being very well received in our house today. This isn’t a very talky episode, but it’s more of a drama for grownups. Indy gets incredibly sick while the family is miles from a city, and it will take several days for the nearest American-trained doctor to be brought to the house where they’ve found refuge. The only real drama comes from waiting for Indy’s mother to swallow her pride and agree that a local doctor can treat him with acupuncture.

All ends well, of course, but our son seems pretty glad that they’ve ended, period. I’ve assured him that the rest of the series would have a little more action in each hour. Not every one of them, mind you, but we’ve got some spies and criminals and enemy soldiers for an older Indy to tangle with starting about six years after the family left China…

Candleshoe (1977)

Here’s something you don’t know about me: I am Earth’s most gullible person. Years ago, when Daniel’s older brother and sister were smaller, we hosted family movie nights at our old house in Georgia twice a month for our friends. We were watching Candleshoe, which is a very, very good Disney film from 1977, and my friend David leaned over and whispered “That tall fellow on the left? You know he played bass for the Undertones, right?” If he hadn’t fessed up that he was pulling my leg, I’d still believe it.

Many of the films from Disney’s 1970s catalog are fantasy-oriented in some fashion, but Candleshoe really only has its high-slapstick fight scene at the end to be completely unreal. It’s a mostly down-to-earth story about a juvenile delinquent in Los Angeles who’s recruited by a London-based con-artist to scam a sweet old lady whose granddaughter vanished thirteen years before, and who lives in a large country estate called Candleshoe. Jodie Foster is mostly playing to type as her usual 1970s saucy tomboy character, and Helen Hayes, in her last movie role, is the very kind Lady St Edmund.

What the con artists don’t realize is that Lady St Edmund is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and that her butler, played by David Niven, and four orphans whom they have taken into Candleshoe, are running a scam of their own to bring in enough money to pay the high taxes without her ladyship realizing. Apart from discreetly selling off the antique furnishings and replacing them with copies, this involves Niven posing as the crotchety Scottish gardener, the cockney chauffeur, and a local retired colonel, because the butler can’t actually pay anybody any wages, and the visits from “the colonel” bring some needed life to Lady St Edmund’s waning days.

All could be well if some pirate treasure hidden centuries before by Lady St Edmund’s privateer ancestor could be uncovered, but the butler and the orphans know nothing of it, so the question, which won’t tax you very long, is whether Jodie Foster will turn out to have a heart of gold and be won over by this oddball family, or whether she’ll find the treasure and give it to Leo McKern in exchange for 10% and a Ferrari.

The script is by longtime Disney vet David Swift and by newcomer-to-Disney Rosemary Anne Sisson, from a novel by Michael Innes. I first saw it on HBO around 1980 and was completely charmed by it, and it’s been one of my favorite films in this genre ever since. It’s a fabulous film for eight and nine year-olds, but five is honestly a bit too young. The plot is just a little more complicated than Daniel could understand without several pauses during the first half to explain. He got the whole “search for pirate treasure” via clues, but overall, we probably should have waited a couple of years for this one.

That said, he still really liked the slapstick. It was directed by Norman Tokar, who would next helm The Cat From Outer Space for Disney, and he knew how to stage ridiculous and safe fight scenes to excite kids of all ages. It opens with a chase through the streets of Los Angeles, is punctuated by a brawl between Foster and one of the orphans, and climaxes with a big skirmish between all the heroes and McKern’s gang of ruffians. McKern and Niven go at each other with as many ceremonial swords, axes, and maces, pulled from Candleshoe’s walls, as you can imagine. Does Niven end up with a bladeless wooden pole that gets sliced ever-and-ever smaller by McKern’s weapon? Of course he does.

David Niven was always one of those actors where you couldn’t tell whether he was enjoying a role or not, since he acted with such reserve, but he’s really funny as his fake characters, and the inevitable scene where his masquerade is revealed is just incredibly sweet. As I write this, I realize that practically everything about this film is actually completely inevitable, but it’s done with such style that it doesn’t matter. Helen Hayes is so wonderfully sweet that she brightens every scene, and McKern was also a real actor’s actor. I’d watch him in just about anything. That said, the film surprised me ten years ago, and did again this morning, by ending on an ambiguous note. Audiences will certainly expect a “you’re my real granddaughter!” revelation, but the finale is more intelligent than that.

Maybe that’s why this movie’s so darn good. The creators knew what they were doing, and, even though they didn’t do anything new, right at the end, they gave a nice little wink to thank the grown-ups in the theater for bringing their kids and playing along. It’s a very good film, and I’ll reintroduce Daniel to it when he is a little older.