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Director: Walter Murch
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Say the words Disney and Oz, and a cheerful Technicolor land filled with dancing munchkins and spontaneous musical numbers flashes to mind. This couldn’t be further from the truth in Return to Oz. I first saw this creepy sequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz as a child in the 1980s. I’m of the Labyrinth and Gremlins era, so I loved it. The critics weren’t so nice: poor reviews tainted the reputation of this beautifully crafted horror movie for kids and condemned it to video vault hell with the heinous title of Bad Sequel.
Directed by Walter Murch, the film combined tales from L. Frank Baum’s books Ozma of Oz and The Land of Oz and was set six months after the infamous tornado of the first instalment. Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk, The Craft) is haunted by her dreams of Oz, so Aunt Em packs her off to a mental asylum for some shock therapy. You can already tell we’re not in Kansas anymore. One dark and rainy night, Dorothy breaks out of the evil clinic, and escapes down a river in a chicken coop. She awakens in the whimsical world of Oz, where sinister forces are ruling the land. Dorothy must save Oz from the villainous Gnome King who has stolen all the emeralds from the Emerald City, turned the Oz folk to stone and imprisoned the King of Oz, the Scarecrow.
The film is littered with wonderfully demented characters: Tik-Tok the copper robot, gangly Jack Pumpkinhead, a bizarre flying sofa with a taxidermied moose head named The Gump… even Toto has been replaced by Billina the talking chicken. The twisted imagery doesn’t stop there, however. It’s the stuff of nightmares as Dorothy explores the ruins of Oz and encounters the manic Princess Mombie (a terrifying Jean Marsh) and her room full of talking severed heads, disturbing talking rocks and the perils of the Deadly Desert, and is sucked into a life-or-death guessing game in the Gnome King’s Mountain. Most menacing of all, however, are The Wheelers. These demonic minions of Mombie were complete with fiendish laughs and wheels for appendages.
Return to Oz conjures a devilish world filled with dangers and seamlessly merges magical adventures with genuine horror. As a lover of the strange, I believe this fantastically weird foray down the Yellow Brick Road should be set free. Go on, champion the cause of this brilliant and frightening fantasy! Return to Oz is truly one of the underrated greats.Colin Le Sueur