VHS Vault presents Return to Oz as part of its May series “The House.” See it for Free in the Nitehawk Lobby on Monday, May 7 at 8pm.
Here’s what most people would say when asked if they have ever seen Return to Oz: “No, what’s that?”
But if you mention to them “the evil queen with 30 different heads” or “giant walking pumpkin head man” or “gang of bad guys with wheels for hands and feet,” you just might get a “Oh Yeah! I remember that! That movie scared the living hell out of me.”
The 1980’s boasted a wonderful catalogue of enchanted/fantasy/adventure films that used popular special effects of that time such as claymation, prosthetics and puppetry. Films like The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal and Willow were the best of these, but Return to Oz managed to fall through the cracks and into the abyss of lost childhood memories.
It’s really no surprise that Return to Oz garnered this fate.
Any film claiming to be a sequel to The Wizard of Oz is either doomed from the start or passed off as some sort of joke. When faced with Return to Oz, most people wouldn’t even think of The Wizard of Oz on impulse. Return has no musical numbers and no dancing or singing, which easily puts the film well outside of any association with the “beloved” original.
This is a cool thing, because while most of us love The Wizard Of Oz, Return To Oz gives us a darker, more realistic, and much more faithful adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s books. The film just happened to showcase an image and style that no child or adult was used to.
In the early 80’s, Disney acquired the rights to Baum’s Oz series with hopes of making a brand new Oz movie; a sequel produced some 40 years after the 1939 Wizard of Oz. The story for Return to Oz is a combination of the second and third Oz books (The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz), forming a plot that brings Dorothy back to Oz six months after her first adventure. Casting eleven-year-old Fairuza Balk in the role of Dorothy presents the character as she’s “supposed to look,” but the young actress was a good seven years younger than Judy Garland was in 1939, which threw audiences off.
The studio also decided to base the design of the film off of illustrations and details from the actual books, rather than the 1939 musical adaptation–a film that was, really, just a stage show with cameras. This gave audiences a glimpse of a totally new, strange, and often frightening image of Oz.
At its onset, Return to Oz sets unsuspecting viewers on their heels. It opens with Dorothy being taken to a psychiatric hospital to undergo some experimental electro-shock therapy–an attempt by her aunt and uncle to rid her of her nightmares and ridiculous claims about her adventure in the land of Oz.
Whether or not it was intentional, Return to Oz ended up being very creepy–sometimes even frightening–and often surreal without losing a tactile sense of reality.
I love this film.
I love the realistic design of the characters. I love the sets, the effects, and the strangeness that surrounds Dorothy. It’s that combination of psychological fear and tangible horror that draws you into this film, the thought of returning to a place where your wildest imaginations came true, only to find it in ruins with all of your friends missing or turned to stone. In an era before there was CGI, we’re presented with a mechanical chicken that’s actually mechanical; a fat, tin, wind-up robot made of nuts and bolts and spinning parts; and a king who’s made of solid rock. This is as real as it gets for an Oz movie, and this forgotten and underrated gem is something that I have been happy to share with people for a long time!
– Joe Muto