by Judson Cade Pedigo
We all have our favorite scene from the classic Technicolor marvel that is The Wizard of Oz. There are so many iconic moments to choose from. Going over the rainbow! The entrance to Munchkin land! Following the yellow brick road! Getting electro shock therapy! Wait…WHAT? That’s not from the Wizard of Oz but it is in the often over looked sequel Return to Oz released by Disney in 1985. Children’s films from that period weren’t afraid to go into some dark territory (Mola Ram ripping out hearts in Temple of Doom, Phoebe Cates’ Santa speech from Gremlins, Large Freaking Marge!) but this movie goes into full on nightmare mode for much of it’s two hour runtime. It’s like the producers sat down and went, “You know all the songs and things that people love about the first one? Let’s throw all that out and try to scare the shit out of everyone instead!” For a sequel to one of the most popular movies of all time it’s so much weirder than it needs to be, which is great. Return to Oz is a dark children’s fantasy that is up there with Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, and The Dark Crystal.
For some reason the 80’s were responsible for some truly weird and wonderful children’s films that knew that kids like being frightened as much as being entertained. Return to Oz really ups the ante. Even the basic plot sounds like something out of a David Lynch fever dream. Dorothy (played by a young Faruza Baulk) is lethargic and depressed following her return home from Oz. When her far-fetched stories of another land become too much for Aunt Em and Uncle Henry they send her away to a sanitarium. This being the turn of the century it is determined that electro shock is the proper treatment to cure her of all those bad thoughts. Barely escaping the asylum, Dorothy is once again carried to Oz courtesy of another natural disaster (this time a flood) where she awakes to find it much different than when she left it. The yellow brick road is destroyed, the Emerald City is in ruins, and it’s citizens turned to stone. Finding herself in the middle of the Ozpocalypse, she gathers a rag tag crew including her talking chicken Henrietta, a steam punk mechanical man (Tik Tok), a fellow with a pumpkin for a head (the aptly named Jack Pumpkinhead) and a stuffed moose head attached to a sofa with palm tree leaves for wings called the Gump (?????). Together they must find the missing King Scarecrow and restore balance to the land of Oz. If you think that all sounds too crazy to be true, you’re wrong, it’s even crazier. Here are a few examples why the Return to Oz is one the strangest and darkest children’s movies ever made.
Flying monkeys? How quaint. When Dorothy finds herself exploring the ruins of the once proud Emerald City, there are warnings painted everywhere, “Beware The Wheelers.” Looking like a cross between what would happen if Tim Burton reimagined The Road Warrior and the droogs from A Clockwork Orange, the Wheelers roam the barren wastelands of Oz looking for a fight. With wheels for hands and feet they rule the land with an iron skate. The last time Dorothy was here, the worst thing she had to deal with was a few grumpy trees throwing apples. Now she has to worry about possibly getting wheeled to death by this gang of psycho pirates. These guys wouldn’t seem out of place in The Warriors (Dorothy, come out and plaaaaaaaay!) but this is Oz, you know, the place where troubles melt like lemon drops. When confronted by the gang they threaten to throw her into the Deadly Desert, which turns all who enter into sand. We see this happen firsthand as a Wheeler skates too close and falls in. He immediately changes and if that isn’t bad enough the camera lingers on his face as it crumbles into a pile on the desert floor. It is horrific. It’s like something out of a Mario Bava movie. It gets worse. These wheeled freaks are only the warm up act.
You think the wicked witch was a nasty woman? Wait until you meet Queen Mombi. All old green face had was a lot of talk and a broom, but Mombi is made from pure nightmares. The Queen likes the finer things in life, jewelry, a fancy wardrobe, oh, and a collection of decapitated heads that she keeps to swap with her own whenever she feels like. That’s right. She collects heads. In one of the most chilling scenes of any movie ever Dorothy must enter Mombi’s trophy room to find the key to their escape. Forget about that hallway in The Shining, that just had a pair of creepy kids, THIS hallway is surrounded on either side by a long row of trophy cases each containing a disembodied head staring at Dorothy as she passes by. Just when you think it can’t get any worse Queen Mombi’s head wakes up and with a howl straight from hell she cries “Doooooorothy Gaaaaaaaaaaale!!!” That sound haunts my soul to this day. The whole thing has a high creep factor and still gets to me. Imagine seeing this when you were ten! Long live the Queen!
If the Wheelers and the evil Queen weren’t enough there’s an even bigger bad waiting in the wings, the terrible Nome King! Made completely out of rock, the Nome King has control over all things stone and can change his appearance from a stern old man to a gruesome granite monster at will. When Dorothy finally finds herself face to face with the self-imposed despot of Oz she learns in horror that his rise to power started when he found himself in possession of a certain pair of ruby red slippers that fell from the sky. Just when you thought that things couldn’t get any more bleak and depressing you realize that the razing of Oz is Dorothy’s fault. All this sadness and destruction born from a little girl’s wish to go home. Did Lars Von Trier direct this thing? What the hell? I don’t want to give too much away but the entire showdown is something straight out of a horror movie. An enraged Nome King goes full on giant claymation rock demon as his minions attack Dorothy and her cohorts while the entire place descends into the burning flames of hell. This belongs on a Megadeth album cover, not a Wizard of Oz movie! This is insane! How did this happen? Who signed off on this? Who sat there going “In case all the dismembered heads weren’t bad enough, let’s send Dorothy straight to hell for the finale. That oughta do it.” Good Lord. Clicking your heels won’t get you out of this one. There’s no place like home, welcome to hell!