From 1995 to 1996, my sister subjected my family to a daily viewing of The Wizard of Oz. Daily. As in she convinced each of my recently divorced parents that she’d be less traumatized by our broken family if she got to eat Ramen Noodles for dinner every night, sitting in front of the TV, watching her rapidly deteriorating VHS copy of the beloved 1939 classic.
Maybe in hopes of expanding our movie collection or perhaps in a desperate fit of, “I can’t fucking watch The Wizard of Oz one more time,” my dad introduced us to Return to Oz, the 1985 sequel-ish to the (set on permanent repeat in the Maxwell household) classic musical. He had a receptive audience in me; I was one “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before my descent into madness.
Return to Oz didn’t serve as the replacement it was intended. And if you’ve ever seen it, you know why. (If you haven’t…) But if you haven’t forgotten the title of this article, you can deduce that this wasn’t a smash hit, because it’s a far scarier Oz than memory serves us. When The Wizard of Oz was first released, a common (and still persistent complaint) was the Wicked Witch and the Flying Monkeys were frightening— far too scary for children—yet it’s a staple usually introduced in early childhood. My suspicion is much of the reason it remains a beloved classic is that connection rendered in childhood. The lost girl who just wants to go home resonates with kids and the grown up versions of those kids alike. The magic of the mysterious Emerald City, the beauty of this place and its cast of characters, and the revelation that sometimes grown-ups aren’t who they seem, makes The Wizard of Oz an undisputed classic; it’s worthy of any great films list, regardless of my personal, lifetime exhaustion of the film.
But how do you make a sequel to The Wizard of Oz? While both Wizard and Return to Oz were based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz book series, MGM took many liberties with Wizard, the end result not aligning much with the novels, while Return to Oz was loosely based on The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, the second and third books in the series. In Return, Dorothy is the age she was always supposed to be and an elaborate studio set is exchanged for cutting edge visual effects for the time. It was no secret that Disney quickly threw the sequel together, with their exclusive rights to the material set to expire, after a decades-long struggle to create a follow up to the original. And for all their efforts, in the summer of ’85, Walter Murch’s Return to Oz somehow bombed at the box office, earning a little more than a third of what it cost to make…which is ridiculous.
My prevailing memory about Return to Oz isn’t how great it was or even how much I loved it. No, what I remember most about Return to Oz is how deeply horrifying it was. So much so, I decided I wasn’t going to schedule my re-watch after dark. For those of you who haven’t seen it, this sounds dramatic. For those of you who have, I have three words for you: BEWARE THE WHEELERS.
I remembered the Wheelers, and I remembered the Deadly Desert, and that was enough for me to wonder if this movie was still scary. But I wasn’t quite prepared to think this movie is scarier now than it was then. Let me remind you how opposite of family-friendly this one is.
Return to Oz opens with our 9-year-old Dorothy (Fairuza Balk), withdrawn and suffering from insomnia after her journey through Oz. Aunt Em, hoping to help Dorothy overcome her issues, takes the child to a psychiatric clinic – the stuff of horror movies – and leaves her there, strapped to a gurney with the world’s most frightening woman (Jean Marsh) to care for her. And by care for her, I mean take her to the mad doctor’s machine of horror for electric shock therapy. For good measure, David Shire takes this opportunity to really ramp up his most chilling score to really dig into your psyche while you become entranced in your favorite traumatic family film. As we start to hear the cries of what we can only assume are mutilated patients in the basement, a thunderstorm kills electricity in the hospital, and Dorothy is left alone, unscathed, but still strapped to the hospital bed. A mysterious girl unstraps her and implores her to run. And here we have it, a horrifying chase scene throughout the institution, with the world’s scariest woman chasing Dorothy all the way to the river, where she and the other young girl are swept away. The mysterious girl seemingly drowns, and Dorothy, after crawling into a wooden box, floats off into safety. Until she lands back in Oz.
I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that this is a family film made by Walt Disney Pictures.
When Dorothy arrives to Oz, this is not the Oz she or the audience remembers. And while she finds her first friend in her chicken, Billina – a more helpful Toto – she finds herself mostly alone as Oz is largely deserted. But, oh yeah, if you step in the sand, you turn to sand. Dead, right on the spot. It’s every child’s greatest fear come to life in Oz. If you miss the furniture and hit the ground, you are no more. Add that to the running list of horrifying features in this film.
But we can’t talk horrifying without bringing up the film’s most notorious villains. If you thought the flying monkeys were scary, meet the Wheelers. The once idyllic Emerald City is a tumbling wasteland, and as Dorothy navigates her way through the city looking for her friends, eerie creaking rings through the abandoned courtyards. Flashes of metallic creatures dart across the screen as the squeals echo and multiply. When we finally see them…my god. It’s been 20 years since I first saw the Wheelers, and I’m still not okay.
And although the Wheelers are a certain kind of disturbing, no scene in Return to Oz is quite as traumatizing as Princess Mombi’s Castle and what takes place in her room of heads. I won’t spoil what is truly one of the most frightening scenes in the history of film, but if you survived the initial shock of the Wheelers, that scene will do you in. And, to put this in perspective, we’re two thirds of the way through the movie, and we haven’t even met the actual villain.
Speaking of the actual villain, what could be worse than the psychiatric torture ward, the Wheelers, and Princess Mombi? Well, by this point, nothing because you’re too traumatized to really process anything else. So let’s throw in some psychological fuckery. Dorothy escapes the mental hospital, the Wheelers, and Mombi to find herself in the Nome King’s mountain, the cave monster who has destroyed Oz, claiming the Scarecrow has stolen all the emeralds from Emerald City, and as punishment, he has turned all of the former dwellers of the city into ornaments. For fun, he’s decided that Dorothy and her newly found friends can try to win back her beloved Scarecrow if she can guess which object he is among a room full of treasures. The catch? If she guesses incorrectly, she herself becomes one of the objects, too. After our brave heroine accomplishes the impossible task, the Nome King – who has been stalking her since she arrived in Oz – launches into a fiery rage, destroying everything around him before self-destructing. Oh, yeah, as Oz returns to its original grandeur, all of the crumbling statues in the city turn back into their real life characters. Just in case you needed one last unsettling Oz image for the road.
Once Dorothy returns home, the mysterious girl from the mental hospital (who we learn is Princess Ozma of Oz) appears to her in her bedroom mirror. She summons her Aunt Em, but Ozma quietly implores Dorothy to keep her and Oz a secret, the secret that has been torturing Dorothy from the start.
Is Return to Oz still scary? I mean, not exactly. It’s horrifying. And if you haven’t seen it, you must.
Featured Image: Buena Vista Distribution