The American Curtis family arrive at their prospective new home in an isolated - the estate agent says "secluded" - part of England. It belongs to Mrs Aylwood (Bette Davis), an elderly widow who lives in the cottage nearby and wishes someone to look after her property, but when the estate agent knocks on her door to get the keys, they all receive a frosty reception from the old woman. Sisters Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and Ellie (Kyle Richards) are intrigued by the old mansion house, but when they go inside for a look around, Mrs Aylwood seems to be taking a strange interest in Jan. The older sister goes upstairs to view her new bedroom, and when she goes over to the window, she has the feeling of being watched from the surrounding woods. Suddenly, Jan sees a flash of light and the pane cracks into a triangular shape, nicking her finger. There is something in the woods... something connected to an occurance of nearly forty years before...
Disney in the early eighties were in a state of uncertainty, where their live action films were unable to find the right audience, so efforts like The Black Hole and Tron struggled despite their extensive use of enchanting special effects. Perhaps the film that most sums up the missteps of that time was The Watcher in the Woods, a science fiction fantasy that nobody at the company was happy with, as evinced by the amount of tinkering the film suffered. It was first released in 1980, but quickly withdrawn after a bad reception; they were throwing a lot of money at it and needed to enjoy some return on their investment. This meant that whole scenes were re-shot, including most infamously the finale which lost its space alien puppet and ended up being replaced by a sequence not shot by director John Hough that is notably rushed and unsatisfying.
Nevertheless, although in its re-edited, shortened form the film still flopped at the box office, it has built up a cult over the years of those who have caught it on television or video at an impressionable age, and a measure of the magic the makers hoped was in the work has rubbed off. Storywise, with a script worked on by Brian Clemens, Harry Spalding and Rosemary Anne Sisson adapting Florence Engel Randall's novel, it's a succession of spooky scenes that star Johnson, her acting growing increasingly hysterical, is put through as if they threw a bunch of strange, mild frights at the screen and hoped at least a few would stick. The reason that Mrs Aylwood has a fascination for Jan is that she reminds her of her own daughter Karen, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances decades ago. Could there be a connection between Jan and Karen? And is little Ellie picking up on this in a psychic kind of way?
With the ending that the film has now, it's difficult to make much sense of what was intended. Karen has slipped into another dimension thanks to a ceremony held by her friends all those years back, as far as I can tell, but the film is at its best when setting up those scares for a more mellow horror film than others of the day. Why did Disney want to make a horror film? Darby O'Gill and the Little People had probably been their most frightening live action film to date, and that had been made over twenty years before, so perhaps they wanted to tap into the delight some children feel at "safe" scares. With the blindfolded Karen appearing at unexpected moments, such as reflections in mirrors (the funhouse part is nicely done) and glass, there's a halfway decent attempt at such an atmosphere, but unable to go to any extremes the film ends up an awkward hybrid of kids' fantasy and a more adult ghost story. It's hard to know how this problem could have been solved; the folks at Disney were certainly stumped. Music by Stanley Myers.