Return to Oz: A Disturbing ’80s Fantasy Classic

Return to Oz is certainly an underappreciated movie, but it's also just this side of terrifying.

If not an outright lie, then the DVD blurb on Disney’s 1985 Return To Oz is, at the very least, misleading. “If you loved The Wizard Of Oz,” it promises, “you’ll love accompanying Dorothy on this second thrilling adventure.”

A more fitting advert might be, “If you loved Mulholland Drive, but thought it could do with less girl-on-girl action and more talking chickens, you’ll love accompanying Dorothy through this scary-ass mess of a film.” Not quite as pithy, perhaps, but certainly more honest.

A composite of the plots of L. Frank Baum’s Ozma Of Oz and The Magical Land Of Oz, Walter Murch’s sole directorial effort is a very different beast from Fleming’s 1939 original. The baddies are as scary, the heroine as determined, but the subject matter touches down in some much darker places. There’s no singing, either, putting Return To Oz closer to Baum’s strange turn of the century stories than the happy clappy ’30s film in many ways.

The major swerve between the two is that, whereas the ’30s film only really gets exciting after the tornado deposits Dorothy in the camp Technicolor land of Oz, the most atmospheric bits of Return To Oz happen before the journey to a decidedly wan version of the magical land.

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Return To Oz‘s opening sequence situates the fantasy story in a world of madness, medical experimentation, and psychotic hallucinations. Dorothy divides herself into two personalities, one blonde, one brunette. She’s plagued by electricity, which symbolizes a kind of modern evil, and dreams a series of fantastic events, all of which have a counterpart in her non-dream world. As I said, it’s basically Mulholland Drive, but with a talking chicken.

Would you like to go for a ride, Dorothy?

The film opens on an age-appropriate Dorothy (eleven-year-old Fairuza Balk), six months after the tornado hit Kansas. The joyful bedside reunion which ended The Wizard Of Oz has long since passed, replaced now with Aunt Em’s baleful vigil over her troubled, insomniac niece.

Things aren’t exactly going swell down on the farm. The tornado took a fair old swipe at the Gale family’s livelihood, meaning they need a mortgage and the house needs rebuilding. As if that wasn’t enough, the hen isn’t laying, Uncle Henry’s in a depressive slump, and Dorothy’s insistence that she’s been hanging out with Munchkins is giving everyone cause for concern.

Though Return To Oz takes its cue from The Wizard Of Oz, rather than Baum’s books, in portraying Dorothy’s trip to the magical land as a dream, the framing device it uses is more sinister. Judy Garland may have faced having Toto the dog put to sleep in her Kansas scenes, but Fairuza Balk faces electroshock therapy in a Victorian asylum. It’s from this point that the film starts doing what it’s best at, scaring kids from here to next week.

There are patients who’ve been damaged, locked in the cellar

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For a good third of its running time, Return To Oz is a horror movie for children, and a good one, at that. It’s only when it tries to fit whimsy and comedy in around the scares that things start to fall flat. Unlike fellow mid-80s kiddy scare-fest, Ghostbusters, where genuine frights sit alongside a leavening sense of humor, Return To Oz gives good terror, but comes unstuck when it tries to lighten things up. Billina the chicken’s cold black eyes and nails down the blackboard screech don’t really make her much of a comedy sidekick.

Balk too, seems somehow haunted in the film, her serious, watery, wide eyes projecting terror and sadness, even when she’s smiling. Not that Dorothy smiles much, especially at the beginning of the movie, where some of Return To Oz‘s most chilling scenes take place. 

The psychiatric hospital sequence is as creepy today as it was in 1985, and made even more so by the director borrowing some staple shots from the horror genre. A violent storm suddenly erupts, a zoom lingers on a menacing closed door, light bulbs swing from the ceiling, the camera chases Dorothy and companion down a dingy corridor, a flash of lightning momentarily illuminates the surgical theatre. It’s horror by numbers and it does the job.

These Wheelers can be tricky customers

The scares continue after Dorothy’s arrival in Oz. After what has to be the most banal ‘passage to a magical land’ sequence in cinema (she calmly floats her way there asleep in an old cot), Dorothy steps onto Oz’s Deadly Desert. The fact that Billina, who was back at the farm, ends up in Oz with her is one of the screenplay’s many illogical leaps, but necessary for the strange denouement, so we’ll give it a free pass.

This time around, though, no cheery Munchkins run out to greet Dorothy. In fact, it all looks a bit like the morning after the bomb. Just as when the Pevensie kids returned to Narnia, she finds the once majestic land of Oz deserted and in ruins.

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This empty Oz sets the stage for the arrival of one of Baum’s scariest inventions, the Wheelers. This half-human, half-scooter cyberpunk gang, with their distended limbs and dog-like bark, are truly the stuff of nightmares. Their real-world counterpart in Dorothy’s non-Oz world is revealed by the unnerving sound they make on their approach. It’s a screech we last heard from the unoiled hospital trolley wheels as Dorothy is being pushed to the shock therapy theatre.

It’s at this point that the schizophrenic tone of Return To Oz really comes to the fore. Dorothy is chased down an alley by the gang of Wheelers in a scene that knocks most of today’s “mild peril” ratings sideways, yet it’s accompanied by a happy, plinky music hall piano tune? If the effect was to lessen the terror for kids, it doesn’t work. In fact, there’s something about the odd combination of the comic score and the isolated, bare events at the opening of the movie which makes it all the more uncanny and sinister.

Then comes an encounter with head-swapping Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), a witch whose obsession with youth and beauty has made her a collector of young girls’ heads. The Mombi scenes have their terrifying moments, Jean Marsh’s headless “Dorothy Gaaaaaale!” screech amongst them, but they also mark the point where the menace drops off with the arrival of comic relief Jack Pumpkinhead and the Gump.

Don’t you know that eggs are poison?

By this point in the film, Dorothy has collected a gaggle of companions, the clockwork Tik-Tok, enchanted scarecrow, Jack, and improvised flying machine, the Gump. The introduction of the new characters at least takes some of the screen pressure off young Balk, who does a fine job under the circumstances, having to act against no-one but puppets for long stretches of the movie.

If you think you’ve seen or heard some of these characters before, you’re probably right. It seems that these enchanted ’80s movies were pretty incestuous when it came to casting. The voices of Jack Pumpkinhead and Billina the chicken here were provided by Brian Henson (son of Muppet legend, Jim) and Denise Bryer, who also voiced Labyrinth‘s Hoggle and Junk Lady, respectively.

Continuing the tradition, Deep Roy from The Neverending Story also pops up briefly as the Tin Man at the end of Return To Oz. Finally, Jean Marsh, who doubled down in Return To Oz as Nurse Wilson and Princess Mombi, played the evil Queen Bavmorda in Ron Howard’s 1988 Willow

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Back to the story. The next baddy the gang come across is the stop-motion Nome King, whose claymation lackeys have been turning up throughout the picture to spy on Dorothy and pull Frankie Howerd faces. It turns out the Nome King seized Oz, turning the inhabitants of the Emerald City to stone and making trinkets out of the royals. 

After some fiddling about with a guessing game, a bit of postcolonial subtext to do with emeralds, and a really weird thing about eggs, Dorothy manages to best the Nome King, bag the ruby slippers and return Oz to its rightful rulers. What follows is a big ceremony just like the end of Star Wars: A New Hope, with Tik-Tok even getting a C-3PO shine job done in honor of the occasion.

There’s no place like home

Safely back on the farm, all seems to be going well for the Gales. Our heroine still sees the little blond girl in mirrors, but she’s learnt to keep it to herself rather than risk getting her brain fried to pieces (understandable, really). It all ends on much lighter territory than it began, as well it should.

Return To Oz joins Labyrinth andThe Neverending Story as yet another ’80s fantasy movie about a motherless bairn who winds up in a loopy fantasy world. Yes, it’s a bit patchy in places, yes, it gave us nightmares, but that’s why we love it. Like The Dark Crystal before it, Return To Oz didn’t shy away from giving kids a proper horror tingle, and for that, we’re truly grateful. Cheers, Dorothy.