This Saturday, October 21, Lifetime premieres its highly-anticipated remake of the 1980 Disney cult horror classic “The Watcher in the Woods.”
Directed by Melissa Joan Hart, who co-produced alongside her mom Paula Hart, the movie follows the Carstairs family as they relocate to the English countryside estate of a woman named Mrs. Aylwood (played by Anjelica Huston). The Cairstairs’ kids, Jan (Tallulah Evans) and Ellie (Dixie Egerickx), are warned to stay away from the nearby woods in which Mrs. Alywood’s daughter Karen vanished 20 years earlier. But when unnerving incidents suggest the answer to Karen’s disappearance still lurks within the forest, Jan becomes determined to solve the mystery.
The original film, which starred Hollywood legend Bette Davis and future “Real Housewife” Kyle Richards, was poorly received by critics upon its limited theatrical release in the spring of 1980. It was so disliked, in fact, that Disney shot an entirely new ending to replace the flick’s first incoherent finale. And while the new ending helped “Watcher” earn a smattering of positive reviews, the creepy movie truly found an audience following its VHS release.
“It was everyone’s first horror movie,” Melissa Joan Hart told me during an interview at San Diego Comic-Con in July. “That’s what it’s known for. If you look on my Instagram, you’ll see people say, ‘Oh my god. I watched that at a sleepover party!’”
On paper, the original “Watcher” is described as a family-friendly science-fiction film, but the surprisingly dark story and eerily voyeuristic camerawork—which was uncharacteristic for Disney at the time—is now remembered by 30- and 40-somethings as the fuel of childhood nightmares.
Even the film’s adorable dog, Nerak, became iconic for his unsettling role in the “Watcher” narrative.
“Everybody remembers Nerak,” Hart said. “Nerak was the thing. That’s one of the things my sister said when I said we were doing the remake of ‘Watcher in the Woods.’ She’s like, ‘Don’t forget Nerak. It has to be right! It has to be right!’”
But to get it right, Hart had to help coax the appropriately terrifying performance out of the young star playing Ellie.
“The actress got embarrassed,” Hart explained. “She has to wake up possessed and scream, ‘Nerak.’ In the first one, Kyle Richards was so possessed. She did just a brilliant job with it. I kept trying to show the little girl that, but she kept giggling and getting uncomfortable with how serious she had to be. It’s hard to scream and not be like, ‘I’m sorry I’m yelling at you.’ And so I cleared the room out and I stared at her and I screamed at her. I would just scream, ‘Nerak! Nerak! Nerak!’ Once she got through the giggles of me yelling at her, I would just be like, ‘Yell at me.’ And she’d be like, [flatly] ‘Nerak.’ And I’d go, ‘No. Nerak!’ We’d just yell it back and forth, and finally I’d be like, ‘Come on in. Roll camera.’”
She added, “If you were to watch the tape uncut, it would be me screaming at her and her screaming right back at me.”
While the “The Watcher in the Woods” remake offers its fair share of thrills and chills, Melissa said the goal of this film—and the goal of all projects produced under her family’s Hartbreak Films banner—is to bring parents and their kids together for the TV-viewing experience. And the Harts were so determined to bring “Watcher” to a new generation of fans that mom Paula pursued the film rights for 17 years.
There was just one problem—Disney lost the paperwork.
“It was before everything was on computers—they couldn’t find the rights,” Melissa revealed. “They were in a warehouse somewhere, and nobody bothered to go look for them. My mom pulled some strings with some people we worked with at ABC, and we found the rights. They went digging through some file cabinets and found them. Literally they couldn’t find the rights.”
Sure, the words “sequel,” “reboot” and “remake” have become dread-inducing terms to a majority film fans, but Hart assured me that she and screenwriter Scott Abbott were careful in making a film that would resonate with a modern audience, but still satisfy fans of the original with direct and subtle nods to the source material.
As Abbott dove headfirst into the original “Watcher,” Hart relied on her “sacred” memories of the 1980 flick and a pre-production viewing party with her then-10-year-old son to shape her vision for the new edition. The end result, she hopes, is a scary movie experience that proves equally as memorable for Generation Z as it has been for Generation X.
“It was one of the best experiences of my career,” Hart told me. “It was so exciting and so fulfilling and so challenging. We were in muddy Wales, in my wellies all day long, in mud up to our knees, and rain and woods and no bathroom in sight, and Anjelica Huston traipsing through the woods in her big black dress. It was just a fantastic time.”
“Watcher in the Woods” premieres on Lifetime this Saturday, October 21 at 8 p.m. ET. Click here to set your DVR with XFINITY On Demand.