Ahead of our special screening of Return to Oz, featuring an introduction from director Walter Murch, we asked ICA staff to share their memories of watching this cult classic. Since its release in 1985, the film—sometimes described as one of the scariest children's films ever made—has made a lasting impression on its viewers, who have been inspired, enthralled and perhaps even a little traumatised by its dark fantasy world and eccentric cast of characters.
The whole Princess Mombi head-thing is terrifying. Not so much the fact that this lady can take off her head and replace it with another after a simple twist and a sick mechanical click! - it was the whole process and the apparatus surrounding it that put my young head into a spin. Okay, first she has to harvest the heads (which she threatens Dorothy with, of course) and then she has to "prepare" them; what happens to their bodies? How do the heads breathe? Does the process involve deleting the contents of their original brains?
Because they're all Mombi... so maybe her consciousness travels between each head? But in this scene they all wake up after Dorothy's bumbling theft of the Powder of Life and begin screeching horribly - it implies that they have consciousness independent of the activating body. So that means that they're thinking and feeling in those claustrophobic little display cabinets... ugh! One of the best twists on the Losing Your Head trope ever.
I remember being taken to the cinema to see this. It came out just before my 4th birthday and my mum took myself and friends to see it for a “treat”. I remember being petrified for the whole movie and afterwards for quite some time.
The scene where we first see the wheelers is just terrifying. The fact they are laughing all the time too just makes it worse. Add to this a talking chicken, a graveyard full of stone-frozen children…it just wasn’t normal. Or certainly not You and Me, which was my usual daytime viewing.
Being a cineaste kid in the 80s was kind of a dark affair. Seemingly taking its cue from the sombre tone of The Empire Strikes Back, family fare was taking a decidely dark turn and Disney were never one to be left behind. So among it's 80s oddities that we have Return To Oz - a film I actually saw alone at a pretty empty cinema as a wee boy. And wee I nearly did!
No one scene stuck in my mind (possibly the bizarre and jolting "wheelers") but as a review said at the time "Dorothy's friends are as strange as her enemies, which is faithful to the...books but turns out not to be a virtue on film...". Still, kudos to Murch and Disney for making a moaning chicken (the real beady-eyed kind, no CGI animatronics here!) kind of loveable. Years later little Fairuza Balk would cast evil spells on bitchy girls in The Craft and cheer on her violent Nazi boyfriend in American History X. I think though we can all agree, this film unsettled us far more. You wheely disagree? Let the Starlight Express from Hell convince you otherwise... ■