Somehow, this is a first viewing for me. I remember seeing it advertised now and again when I was a kid, but I was always more a Blackbeard’s Ghost type than anything that looked like actual horror. It would have aired with the new ending; until relatively recently, the original ending was thought lost. Disney rejected the idea of a DVD release with the option to watch it either way, but the footage has been found and is available as a special feature, at least. Allegedly, this is confusing, but I think it’s probably only confusing if you aren’t used to certain tropes.
Naturally, the movie starts with a family moving into a Creepy British Manor. Father Paul Curtis (David McCallum) is a conductor. Mother Helen (Carroll Baker) is a children’s book author. Daughter Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is a teenager, and other daughter Ellie (Kyle Richards, whose sister is Tia in the Witch Mountain movies) is a preteen. Jan is seeing things, and Ellie is hearing things, and it turns out that the house is owned by old Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis), whose daughter Karen (Katharine Levy) vanished thirty years earlier.
This is, alas, one of a handful of movies that fell into that era when Disney was trying to cater to a wider market and was, as far as everyone was concerned, hamstrung by the Disney name. I don’t think it’s the best of them, but my Gods it isn’t the worst. That is, I think, kind of a rush to the bottom. Now, it could also be better. I can think of several important improvements, starting with giving Bette Davis more to do—and more to do with the plot. However, I also don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as its reputation.
It’s based on a book and therefore a possibility for a future Camera Obscura outing, but honestly I don’t know how closely it’s based on said book. The biggest problem I have with this movie is that it’s a little shaky. Too much time is given to certain set pieces—runaway horses, a spooky drive through the woods, a motorcycle race—and not enough is given to actually fleshing out the plot or the characters. The adults are all basically ciphers, as is Ellie, and Jan isn’t much beyond that.
There seems to have been a lot of criticism of the girls’ acting in the initial reviews, and I don’t think that’s fair. Johnson in particular feels to be doing as much as she can with what she’s been given. There’s too much blame of child actors when the blame should go to the script, in my experience. Yes, Jan spends a lot of the film saying things to adults in a frantic voice, but what else could she do? Okay, she could perhaps let us get to know her as a person, or research the history of the little village, or basically anything that gives her agency, but how can she if the script won’t let her?
Likewise, Bette Davis is mostly just kind of hanging around, so far as I can tell. Director John Hough spoke admiringly of her and was pleased to have had the experience of directing her—it seems to have been quite the learning experience for him. But I’d really have liked a sequence where she and Jan have a real conversation, for example, something that isn’t just being played for effect. She’d literally been in show business for fifty years at this point, and while goodness knows it meant her career was doing better than Joan Crawford’s, that’s a low bar.
All in all, it’s not a bad idea for a Spooky Kids’ Movie, though I do agree with the original trailers that screening it before showing it to younger kids isn’t a bad idea. And, of course, knowing what does and doesn’t scare your individual younger child. I have a daughter who pretends to be Coraline. A character once brought to cinematic life by a certain Henry Selick, credited in the original film as C. Henry Selick, who helped animate the creature who appears in it.