Demonstrating an incredible lack of caution and apprehension, Mr. and Mrs. Curtis (David McCallum and Carroll Baker) -- supposedly a composer rehearsing a new opera and an author of "charming children's books" -- rent an ostentatious, haunted country estate, the better to endanger their darling daughters (Lynn-Holly Johnson and Kyle Richards), who are promptly imposed upon by the resident spook, the ghost of an adolescent girl who vanished a generation earlier.
It's not as if the danger signals were too subtle to be detected. The landscape of "Watcher in the Woods" reeks with foreboding, an ill wind repeatedly whooshes through the grounds like a regularly scheduled express, and director John Hough affects low, cowering camera angles, suggesting the point of view of a terrified rodent. As Mrs. Aylwood, the morose old crone holed up in an adjacent cottage, Bette Davis fixes the sunny-faced Johnson with a malign glare that threatens to roast the sweet, unoffending dumpling right on the spot.
Months might have gone by before McCallum and Baker noticed anything alarming. Discomfited by Mrs. Aylwood's inhospitable stare, Johnson's character, the teen-age Jan, pleads, "Mom, couldn't we keep looking?" Her mother, evidently one of those writers deficient in elementary powers of observation, feigns surprise: "What don't you like?" Jan draws her the self-evident picture, not that it gets her anywhere: "The whole atmosphere, I guess. Something awful happened here. I feel it."
Despite this poignant appeal, mom and dad can't resist a bargain rental. They move in and blithely dismiss every weird and/or menacing occurrence that clutters the exposition up to the climax, when Mrs. Curtis suddenly panics on a Dark and Stormy Night and hastens to beat a futile retreat.
Now at area theaters, "Watcher in the Woods" represents a botched effort by the Disney studio to locate a suitable opening somewhere within the flourishing genres of supernatural and horror fantasy. The results confirm the discouraging air of miscalculation that has surrounded the studio's recent attempts to modernize its product: "The Black Hole," "The Last Flight of Noah's Ark," "The Devil and Max Devlin," "Condorman." In fact, "Watcher in the Woods" was withdrawn from release and partially reshot after a disastrous opening in New York almost a year ago. Evidently, the reshooting was intended to clarify the ending, which baffled customers and critics alike. It appears that clearing up this mystery has merely exposed its fundamental ho-humness.
Ultimately, "Watcher" is revealed to be a catchall for red herrings. The overtures from the spirit world that appear to threaten the lives of the sisters, Jan and Ellie, turn out to be harmless after all. The innocuous resolution makes all the sinister pretense seem even shabbier and clumsier in retrospect. Morever, it symbolizes the confusion that has been undermining Disney's live-action productions. Craving more stimulating material on one hand but still wedded to reassuring coziness on the other, the studio shortchanges both tendencies.
It's not as if supernatural fantasy and even terror were alien to the Disney tradition. Disney animators often left indelible impressions as masters of the macabre and expressive manipulators of childhood anxieties. However, in either live-action or animation, it's essential to have a story that succeeds in rationalizing the scary elements. Even if "Watcher" were a slick production, it would still be compromised by weak gothic machinery.
The most supernatural aspect of the film remains the obliviousness of those parental stooges. It exposes poor, hard-up actors like McCallum and Baker and the poor, expedient filmmakers to such instant contempt that it doesn't even serve the purpose of getting a story started. On the contrary, it proves a reliable forecast of storytelling ineptitude, a method that combines feebleness with heavy-handedness.