Pretty Vacancy: Just How Scary IS Return To Oz…?

Equal parts childhood nostalgia and childhood trauma. Why Walter Murch's Oz is a dark place to return to...
Equal parts childhood nostalgia and childhood trauma. Why Walter Murch’s Oz is a dark place to return to…

So, with Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great And Powerful receiving middling reviews across the board, let’s turn the clock back nearly 30 years to the last time Hollywood took a trip down the yellow brick road… and smashed it to pieces.

Walter Murch’s Return To Oz holds a special place in my heart, for both the magical touch of adventure it conjured in my young mind, and for the gob-smacking terror of some of its dark, dark imagery. A little while ago I summoned up the courage to revisit Murch’s movie, and documented my thoughts on it in real-time. Below is the blow-by-blow. Spoilers are almost constant… Panic-induced foul language also…

00:00:12: Walt Disney logo appears. Ordinarily a logo we’re supposed to emotionally link with all things pure and wholesome in a world of wonder and imagination. Only on this film its cast in a vile, sickly oozing green.

00:00:53: Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) lies awake in bed. She has the cold, dead eyes of a killer.

00:01:26: A wider shot reveals she is tucked into bed so tightly she may as well be wearing a straightjacket already.

00:03:46: Dorothy threatens a chicken with death.

00:05:25: I’m sure there wasn’t talk of broken legs and economic pressures in the first movie…

00:06:31: Dorothy abandons Toto. He probably died horribly.

00:09:14: Having been transported to a deeply sinister institution, Dorothy is introduced to an ‘electrical marvel’, a scary-ass machine that ‘manages electrical current’, has a face, and will be used to give her ELECTRIC SHOCK TREATMENT! (This is a kid’s film… right?)

00:12:01: The tall, dark, miserable, unclean corridors of a mental institution that lead to her inevitably bleak-as-fuck cell.

00:13:35: Screaming coming from the walls. Delightful.

00:14:19: Dorothy uses a comb on a jackal lantern, which is just bizarre. Nutjob.

00:16:34: Dorothy is prepared to be painfully electrocuted following a chilling trip down a corridor in which her movement is restricted by her grim matron and a deathly pale creepy guy.

00:18:05: More disembodied wailing.

00:20:30: Having escaped, Dorothy and her new friend are nearly drowned in a river as they escape during a lightning storm. In fact it appears her friend IS drowned. Tough break.

00:21:50: Oz. Oh look, a talking chicken! Oddly upsetting to look at.

00:24:26: And now rocks that can watch you!

00:24:47: Okay, the lunch-pale tree is cool. Scene spoiled by rocks that can watch you!

00:27:28: The wonderful yellow-brick road has been SMASHED TO PIECES! Unseen angry birds crow. The rock-face reports back to a sinister angry voice underground. Getting tense now.

00:28:59: The Emerald City is in RUINS! and all of it’s inhabitants have been TURNED TO STONE!

00:29:41: “Beware the Wheelers? I don’t remember them…” I do! Weird neon clowns that cackle endlessly, with wheels for hands and feet, most of whom wear hideous masks as well ~Shudder~ Shit! There’s one now!

00:30:01: A number of the inhabitants of Oz have not only been turned to stone but also DECAPITATED! Dorothy’s old friends are also turned to stone.

00:31:00: Wheeler-attack!!!! This is all getting too much! (One thought: how do Wheeler’s dress themselves?)

00:34:45: Dorothy re-activates clockwork-man Tick-Tock. A robot man who slowly loses life as he runs down. Okay, he isn’t that sinister, but he’s still not right. Kinda like a dumpy Johnny 5.

00:37:38: Wheelers! They catch one and interrogate him. He’s freaky. Stop laughing you freak!

00:41:43: Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh) takes Dorothy on a tour down a corridor of DECAPITATED HEADS! She then TAKES HER HEAD OFF AND SWAPS IT FOR ANOTHER ONE! AAAARGH OH-MY-FUCKING-CHRIST!!!!

00:44:04: Mombi takes Dorothy and locks her in the tower. The chicken says “If this is Oz, I’d rather take my chances back in Kansas” Damn right. I’d take hayseeds and hillbillies over Wheelers!

00:45:56: Jack Pumpkinhead. A man with a grinning jackal-lantern for a head and whose body is made of roped-up branches. Oh, he’s been dismembered too. Surely the inspiration for Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas. He reveals he was designed to scare. No shit. Dorothy puts him back together.

00:49:06: Jack and Dorothy creep back down into the castle to rescue Tick-Tock. Jack’s creeping technique is creepy, like a withered paedophile. He asks to call Dorothy “mom”, perverting the image even more.

00:51:12: Dorothy unties a key from the sleeping, snarling form of Mombi. Tense!

00:52:59: Whilst trying to take the Powder Of Life from the cabinet containing Princess Mombi’s original head, the original head wakes up and screams horribly, waking all the others heads, which also start screaming. FUCK!

00:54:23: Dorothy pours the Powder Of Life over two-sofas, a bunch of leaves and a gump-head that has been tied together. And it comes to life! Seriously. Flying-Gump-Sofa.

00:55:01: A headless Mombi smashes open a cabinet to get a head. Brief but horrifying!

00:55:57: Dorothy and co escape on the Flying-Gump-Sofa. Really. Wheelers are sent after them. ~Shudder~ Wheelers.

00:58:47: Mombi appears to have the ghost of a child trapped in yet-another cabinet.

00:59:18: Wheelers!

01:00:20: Everyone wakes up to find the Gump-thing falling to bits in mid-air! Over the deadly desert that turns things into sand! Jack’s head comes off!

01:01:41: Gump comes apart and they all fall out of the sky!!!!! Oh, but they land on a mountainside. Jack’s head lands on the spike of his neck, but the wrong way up. Genuinely horrible image.

01:05:11: The chicken is inside Jack’s head. Something about that is really, really unpleasant. It keeps poking its head out his eye-hole! Make it stop!

01:07:20: The Nome King. A literal Rock Face. Don’t like it.

01:09:16: Wheelers!!!!

01:10:30: A load of rock hands dig out a hallway. Another strangely unsettling image.

01:12:21: The Nome King casually reveals he has turned the Gump into a ‘nick-nack’ before threatening everybody with a fiery furnace.

01:14:04: Wheelers!!!!

01:14:24 Tick-Tock is two-faced about Jack now that he’s not around. What a cunt.

01:15:02: Wheelers!!!!

01:17:28: As the Nome King takes away more of Dorothy’s friends by turning them into stuff he becomes more human-looking. But he doesn’t blink. No blinking = creepy. Always.

01:21:08: Wheelers!!!!

01:24:02: The Scarecrow’s back! Was he always this fucked-up-looking too?

01:25:18: Everything starts crumbling and falling apart for some reason! Ah, it’s the Nome King and he’s all pissed-off… and TERRIFYING!

01:26:53: The Nome King starts eating Dorothy’s friends alive.

01:27:18: Gargoyles come to life and attack everyone!

01:27:42: Howling faces and rock arms spring from the walls!

01:28:00: The Nome King’s jaws stretch open to frankly horrifying proportions as he readies himself for eating Jack to death.

01:28:40: The Nome King’s eye crusts over. Which is just ugly.

01:29:27: Poisoned by a chicken’s egg, the Nome King crumbles into pieces. Even this manages to be disgusting-looking.

01:30:04: Dorothy is nearly crushed to death by falling masonry.

01:30:41: Wheelers!!!!

01:31:46: “Everything’s all right now” – Yeah, things are finally looking up. The day has been saved, Oz has been restored to its former glory. Tick-Tock has been shined up and looks like a tit, but nevermind. Nevertheless, that animatronic chicken is ruining everything.

01:33:36: Why is there a giant frog in the background, and why is it cupping its ears as if it can’t hear? It’s horrible.

01:35:54: The Cowardly Lion looks like it’s had a stroke.

01:37:12: Dorothy wakes up, caked in mud, transfixed by a small twig. At least she gets reunited with Toto.

01:38:44: Dorothy’s doctor is revealed to have been burned to death.

01:40:14: Dorothy appears to have learned nothing, and still has to be reminded by magical people in her bedroom mirror to SHUT UP ABOUT OZ OR SHE’LL BE ELECTROCUTED!

01:41:00 Ahhh, end credits. Safe now.

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