Cult Cinema - Return to Oz (1985) - Reviewed

Legendary film editor Walter Murch's only directorial effort Return to Oz, is a remarkable endeavor.  Harnessing the essence of L. Frank Baum's dark fantasy novels, Return is a towering achievement in set design and ambiance, transporting viewers into a twisted version of Oz, a place of lost dreams, lethal deserts, and nightmarish creatures from beyond.  Considered a critical and commercial failure upon release, viewers were not prepared for Murch's horror tinged approach to the material, presenting Dorothy's sojourn as both a respite from unspeakable mental health practices and as a reskinned Grimm Brothers' tale; featuring unexpectedly dark subject matter and haunting imagery that plagues the mind years after viewing it.  

Dorothy, has returned to Kansas, and, despite her family's misgivings believes that her friends in Oz are in great danger.  Escaping from a torturous psychiatric hospital, Dorothy finds herself in an Oz that has come under siege by sinister forces.  What follows is a journey not unlike her first, filled with fantastical allies and supernatural dangers, however at the end of this broken yellow brick road lies darkness, not a wizard.  Murch co-wrote the script with Gil Dennis.  One of the most interesting facts about the production is that it had Disney's blessing.  Disney picked up the rights prior to the Oz books becoming public domain.  Murch's interpretation of the novels is much closer than the 1939 classic, presenting Oz as a disparate wasteland full of terrors; a mirror to the possible mental discord within Dorothy.

Fairuza Balk stars as Dorothy, and while her performance is more than adequate, Dorothy, much like in the first film is more a conduit for the world around her, unfolding more and more with each introduction of strange companions, esoteric customs, and enchanted items.  Willow villain Jean Marsh supports as the duplicitous Princess Mombi in one of the most terrifying sequences ever contained within a children's film.  Nicol Williamson's turn as the horrifying Nome King is the fabric of childhood fear, mirroring both the monstrosities that lies in the darkness and the occasionally chilling pragmatism of the adult world.  

David Watkins and Freddie Fancis' cinematography captures the uncomfortable mystique of Murch's vision with grim lighting and deep colors.  Otherworldly reds and grays saturate every scene, contrasted against Dorothy's soiled white dress and the dingy metals of a world long forgotten.  The visual effects were nominated for an Oscar and Charles Bishop's art direction has an undeniable grand guignol feel akin to Suspiria.  Mombi's palace is the centerpiece, particularly the unforgettable corridor of heads and mirrors that dominates the central act.  

It's interesting to think about this remarkable film in context of today's cinematic landscape.  This is the kind of movie Blumhouse would have died for and, despite its occasional awkwardness, it's a film that continues to both endear its youthful viewers and terrify its adult patrons.  Neil Gaiman, when asked about Coraline's popularity with children, despite its scary premise, said “They don't get nightmares, and they don't find it scary. I think part of that is that kids don't realize how much trouble Coraline is in -- she is in big trouble -- and adults read it and think, "I know how much trouble you're in." Return to Oz is the perfect example of this thesis.  While the Wheelers and Mombi are terrifying to behold, there is always a sense of wonder and magic underneath the dark exterior and this is what makes this film such a treasured experience.


Available now for digital rental, Return to Oz is a one of kind oddity, joining an exclusive fraternity of films that are not only unique, they are iconic and absolutely unforgettable.  While the script has issues and some of the voice acting slips into overly humorous abandon, these imperfections never betray the overall ambiance of the macabre.   Considered a cult classic by both film lovers and casual fans, this is essential viewing for children of the 80's and newcomers to the horror fantasy genre.  

--Kyle Jonathan