The cycles of time repeat, solstices and eclipses and the rituals which have become associated with them through decades and centuries of repetition, their original meanings distorted or forgotten entirely as history marches on, memory becoming folk tale, the superstition of the watcher in the woods repeated generation after generation.
On holiday from Cleveland, Ohio, the Carstairs family are in the Welsh village of Northrop for several months through the summer seeking accommodation big enough to house father Paul and offer him a spacious study for his work, mother Kate and their two daughters, Jan, about to turn sixteen, and Ellie, just old enough for her mother to question her sudden demand for a new doll.
Their first stop after the estate agent is Aylwood Manor, on the edge of the woods which the locals seem to shun and equally unwelcoming is Mrs Constance Aylwood herself despite the protestations of the estate agent that she has already agreed to move to the adjoining cottage and rent out the main house.
Duly persuaded, Mrs Aylwood accepts the family, but then the strange occurrences begin, the whispering in the wind through the trees, the broken mirrors which seem to reflect a blindfolded stranger, Ellie’s nightmares, all of it seemingly linked to the upcoming festival celebrating the village’s miraculous escape from the Black Plague, this year the date coinciding with a lunar eclipse.
Based on the 1976 novel by Florence Engel Randall and written by Scott Abbott, also behind the 2002 adaptation of Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned and the 2014 version of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Watcher in the Woods was previously filmed in 1980, a production now virtually disowned by Disney, as lost in the woods as Mrs Aylwood’s daughter Karen was thirty six years before during a previous festival.
Directed by Melissa Joan Hart, formerly the title star of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch of which she also directed several episodes, location filming in Wales ensures her version of the story never feels as though it has come from the Hollywood television movie production line but nor does it have the essential contrasts of the original, neither the comfort of the happy family and village life nor the unexpectedly genuine menace of the deep forest which made it so unique in their catalogue.
Felix Bird’s plonky piano soundtrack painfully in keeping with the earnest “true life” ethic of the Lifetime cable network on which it was broadcast, significantly the tone is now strictly supernatural, eschewing the science fiction aspects which the original production struggled to handle, and while these deviations from the source weaken the material by far the greatest problems are technical.
While minimal the special effects are genuinely inadequate and a considerable portion of the film appears to have been digitally tinted in a desperate attempt to disguise the substantial day-for-night shooting other than in scenes where it is seemingly forgotten, dawn in the forest apparently occurring only moments after the midnight eclipse which turns out to have no relevance to the revised plot.
A more youthful Mrs Aylwood than Bette Davis’ cranky performance, The Addams Family‘s Anjelica Huston is by far the best thing in the production though her presence is peripheral until the final act, and while Tallulah Evans and Dixie Egerickx are good as Jan and Ellie their parents are at best adequate, not helped by barely functional dialogue and ridiculous behaviour; having been told their teenage daughter left the festival in the company of adults unknown, rather than immediate concerned pursuit they opt to go home to check if Jan might been heading there.
Better are the locals, quick to leap in with warnings of the woods, among them Benedict Taylor as John Keller, witness to Karen’s disappearance decades before and now reluctantly called to recreate the circumstances, Taylor having played teenager Mark Fleming in 1980, a part now filled by Nicholas Galitzine whose displayed talents do not extend far beyond being pretty, though with none of the characters developed beyond narrative necessity it would seem perhaps the whole should have perhaps remained lost in the woods.