Between Child Catchers and Drashigs, Mad Hatters and Sleestak, Bigfoots and all manner of witches, especially the ones who use boiling oil, our son has seen down the most nightmare-inducing imagery that the world of movies and TV can throw at kids. He’s left the room in tears a few times, but all of these frights mean that ours is the planet’s toughest seven year-old.
This is a good thing, because anybody who shows a seven year-old Return to Oz without giving them a good education in frights beforehand is just asking for trouble. Mother of Mary! If I had seen this when I was seven, I wouldn’t have slept for a month. This is a really good movie, but but you want to know about nightmare fuel? There’s a part where we meet a character with multiple heads. We’ve been down this road often enough to know that a bit later, those heads are going to wake up and start screaming. I’m not spoiling anything, because it’s that obvious. You could set your watch by it.
And yet when those heads start screaming… well, I’m a middle-aged fat man now and yet I’m pretty sure I’m not going to sleep for a month.
I was “too old” for Return to Oz when it was released in 1985, in that horrible teenage boy period I’ve mentioned here before when we all just had no time for kids’ stuff anymore. It’s always seemed to share some cultural overlap with some of the other mid-eighties fantasies, especially Labyrinth, but it’s never really had the same kind of championing or love. If Time Bandits is a prickly film, then this is downright spiky. It’s extremely well-made, but surely nobody finds it comforting.
The story goes like this. Dorothy goes back to Oz, as she did many times in Baum’s original novels and all the zillion tie-ins and cash-ins, and finds that a Nome King, played by Nicol Williamson, has wrecked the Emerald City, turned its people to stone, and captured the Scarecrow. Played by Fairuza Balk (who, at ten, is a much more age-appropriate Dorothy than Judy Garland), Dorothy finds some new allies but gets on the wrong side of a witch called Mombi, who is played, in part, by Jean Marsh.
Design-wise, it’s a very, very eighties movie. Mombi looks like she’s ready for a night on the town with… well, with Labyrinth‘s Goblin King, actually. Her servants, the Wheelers, are (a) completely horrifying, (b) strapped into what must surely be the most uncomfortable costumes ever worn by anybody in film history, and (c) look like they reported to the set just after making music videos in New Zealand, “Manic Panic” in their hair and all. Jack Pumpkinhead, who was brought to life in part by Brian Henson, is wearing a remarkable pink shirt that would never have been sold in any other period. And there’s Claymation. Quite a lot of it!
But while I giggle at the costumes and makeup, just like I do when I watch pretty much anything from the mid-eighties these days, the sets are pretty remarkable and show a wild attention to detail. There’s a great bit where the lumbering Tik-Tok leaves footprints in a dusty floor as he stomps, and the camera sensibly ignores it, leaving the audience to suddenly ask how long it took to reset the stage between takes. Mombi’s palace is full of mirrors, emphasizing the witch’s narcissism, and then there’s the sanitorium where the movie begins.
As with MGM’s original movie, some of the actors do double-duty as characters in both Kansas and Oz. If Jean Marsh is a little garish and scene-chewing as Mombi, she’s an all-business rod-in-her-spine harridan as the head nurse in Kansas. This is where the movie starts to get under your skin. The whole experience is framed like a horror film, with the quiet squeaking of hospital gurneys and distant screams of the incarcerated making viewers uneasy as the music insists this is not a kiddie movie at all.
Our own kid will be going to sleep in about seventy minutes. Maybe he’ll let me sleep in his bed tonight if I get too scared. Pleasant dreams, everyone.