American teenager Jan Carstairs (Tallulah Evans) reluctantly accompanies her family to spend the summer at Aylwood manor, an idyllic estate near a remote Welsh village. Where Jan is immediately spooked by former owner Mrs. Aylwood (Anjelica Huston). At night she spies the old woman roaming the woods up to antics a few locals suspect might be witchcraft. Strange occurrences at the house start to unnerve the Carstairs family and Jan begins to suspect they have something to do with the mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Aylwood's daughter, thirty-seven years ago.
Made at a time when the Walt Disney studio was desperate to re-brand itself for a modern audience the original The Watcher in the Woods (1980) was an infamously troubled production. Intended as a family-friendly horror or what producer Tom Leetch pitched, remarkably enough, as Disney's take on The Exorcist (1973), the finished film was marred by hasty re-shoots and post-production tampering that rendered its climax all but incomprehensible. Nevertheless over time the Disney adaptation of Florence Engel Randall's spooky 1976 young adult novel amassed a cult following. One such fan happened to be Nineties pop culture icon Melissa Joan Hart, star of teen television shows Clarissa Explains It All and the original Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who directed this made-for-TV remake.
Originally broadcast on the Lifetime network the new The Watcher in the Woods is hampered by overly bright, sanitized, TV-safe visuals that undo Hart's sporadic though valiant attempts to weave an eerie atmosphere. Interestingly while the font used on promotional material seems calculated to evoke Stranger Things, Hart appears to be less influenced by Eighties nostalgia than James Wan movies as she assails her protagonists with spooky whispers, loud bangs, jumps scares and prowling 'demon-cam.' Awkward digital effects make literal what would be better off ambiguous. As does a mid-plot flashback that clarifies the fate of Karen Aylwood too soon. In a charming touch the script relocates her disappearance to the year the original film was released. While the 'scary' sequences will likely only unnerve under-twelves a handful, including when living vines drag Jan under the lake or the brief glimpse of a sinister looking creature in a pocket mirror, are well handled and tense.
If the 1980 film has the edge in terms of ambiance and production value, Hart's version delivers a far more coherent take on Randall's premise. Which remains arguably one of the most original and inventive in the young adult fantasy genre. New lead Tallulah Evans easily eclipses memories of Lynn-Holly Johnson as a less winsome, more faceted Jan while Anjelica Huston brings conviction to the supporting star turn previously inhabited by Bette Davis. Hart's film establishes Jan and hunky love interest Paul (Mark Fleming) as smart, rational kids who intelligently piece the mystery together, emphasizing the young heroine's perceptive nature and capacity for empathy as qualities to be encouraged in young viewers. Central to the plot is Jan's ability to see, hear and ultimately decipher things the more skeptical grownups dismiss out of hand, including both her parents (Rufus Wright and Melanie Gutteridge) whose hostility in the face of mounting evidence grows downright dense. Unlike the Disney film this does not tack on a third-act science fiction twist and stays true to the original supernatural story. Hart does a better job clarifying the emotional stakes for Jan who ends up risking all to save not only the abducted girl but also her own sister (Dixie Egerickx). Even so for all these positives, along with the plot simply holding together a lot better, this remains an insipid take on material whose potential remains frustratingly unrealized.