30 Years Later, Return to Oz Is Still One of the Scariest Kids' Movies Ever
When Return to Oz hit theaters on June 21, 1985, parents took their kids to see it and probably expected the Judy Garland-esque merriment of the original Wizard of Oz. Although this sequel offered audiences plenty of fantasy, it didn’t shy away from the darker bits of Oz lore, and more than a few young viewers had trouble sleeping at night.
(Yes, this writer was among those kids who were terrified.)
This week, the movie turns 30, and enough time has passed for traumatized young viewers to see that Return to Oz stands in good company with other beloved ’80s kids movies that dared to be scary, such as The NeverEnding Story and The Dark Crystal. What better way to celebrate the anniversary with a look back at the scenes that made it dark, twisted and in the end, great?
Dorothy goes to an insane asylum.
Yep, that’s how the movie kicks off. Having returned to Kansas after the events of the first movie, Dorothy – played as both wide-eyed and courageous by a 10-year-old Fairuza Balk in her film debut – is sent to an asylum. Auntie Em (Piper Laurie) hopes that electroshock therapy will cure Dorothy of her delusions of Munchkins and witches.
A storm knocks out the power moments before Dorothy is scheduled to be zapped, but the scene is still full of dread and foreboding. That line by the head nurse (Jean Marsh) – “Would you like to go for a ride, Dorothy?” – before she gets strapped to the gurney is as creepy as anything spoken in a horror movie.
Dorothy almost drowns in a catastrophic storm.
Violent meteorological phenomena are both a blessing and a curse for Dorothy. Whereas a tornado took her to Oz in the first movie, torrential floodwaters take her there in Return to Oz. When a mysterious girl who helps Dorothy escape from the asylum seems to disappear in the floodwaters, viewers are left to wonder if she drowned.
This scene also introduces the film’s stand-in for Toto, Dorothy’s pet hen Billina, who may or may not be creepy, depending on your feelings about talking chickens.
The Claymation monsters are horrifying.
What is it about Claymation that makes it so creepy? Even when the figures are cute, there’s an uncanniness to them, but the stop-motion villains in Return to Oz, the Nome King and his rock monster henchmen, are clearly meant to be scary.
Oz is basically post-apocalyptic.
Kiss your childhood memories goodbye. Dorothy quickly discovers that the Yellow Brick Road has been dismantled, that the Emerald City is in ruins, and the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion have been turned to stone. Eep. And that’s not all
Then there are the Wheelers.
They’re the goons residing in the ruins of the Emerald City, and never have roller skates been so scary. They’d be terrifying even if they weren’t actively trying to kill Dorothy, but it’s all the scarier when they make threats like “We’ll tear you into little pieces and throw you in the Deadly Desert.”
That scene where Princess Mombi removes her head.
Dorothy seeks help from Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh, again), but this woman is no Glinda the Good Witch. A major tip-off for poor Dorothy happens when Mombi removes her head and replaces it when another that she keeps in a glass cabinet, in what has to be the creepiest dressing room in the history of film.
Oh, and all the spare heads are sentient – and mean.
When Dorothy steals Mombi’s Powder of Life, she finds that the heads double as a security system. They all start screaming, and Mombi’s headless body rises up in a scene that’s reminiscent of the Italian horror classic Suspiria – and if you think that’s an odd reference to be making in an article about a children’s movie, you’re not wrong. It’s a very surreal, scary scene.
There’s something unsettling about Jack Pumpkinhead.
Return to Oz‘s analogue for the Scarecrow is the aptly named Jack Pumpkinhead, whose head is hollow enough that Billina can hide inside. He’s a well-animated creation, but something about that face combined with his emotional hang-ups – he insists on calling Dorothy “Mom” – makes for a weird combo.
And finally the Nome King.
A stop-motion masterpiece, the Nome King serves as the film’s big bad. And he and his underlings sure are creepy, but the final battle with him gets downright bizarre when he attempts to eat Jack, only to have Billina poop an egg right down his rocky gullet. The baddies immediately crumble, because it turns out that chicken eggs are poison to Nomes. Of course!
30 Years Later…
Perhaps Return to Oz set Fairuza Balk on a dark path. Now 41, she’s continued to act ever since, often in dark roles, and perhaps her best-known role is the villainous witch Nancy in 1996’s The Craft. Balk also appeared in Almost Famous, American History X and The Water Boy. She is set to play a recurring role on the upcoming season of Ray Donovan.
Piper Laurie, who played Auntie Em, is of course best known for playing the title character’s psychotic mother in Carrie, for which Laurie got one of her three Academy Award nominations. Laurie, 83, who has continued to work in movies and TV, also played resident sexpot Catherine Martell on Twin Peaks. (She’s down to return for the revival, according to this interview.) In 2011, she published her autobiography, which detailed losing her virginity to Ronald Reagan in 1950.
Jean Marsh, 80, may be most familiar to American viewers for having played Princess Mombi (or her main head, anyway), but she also played the villainous Queen Bavmorda in the 1988 fantasy epic Willow. Marsh co-created and starred in the landmark British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and reprised her role for the 2010 revival.