To say that the movie Return to Oz has a darker tone than the black & white/ incredibly colorful The Wizard of Oz is an understatement. Made many years apart, the two films are only really related through their shared source material. One is a jolly old adventure that showcases dancing and singing, whilst the other involves people getting their heads cut off.
The novel of the Wizard of Oz (which was banned for a while) was pretty nasty in parts, but got heavily sanitized in the movie version. There were still some slightly dark elements, like when a witch was crushed by a house and her feet rolled up like party blowers and when another witch melted away in horror thanks to a strangely dangerous splash of water, but none of them held a candle to the horrors of the 80’s cult classic.
Return to Oz was a mishmash of the book sequels The Marvelous Land of Oz, and Ozma of Oz. Despite its mixed source material, this version was still more faithful to the series than the Judy Garland pseudo musical. The character designs of the Tin-Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow were a lot closer to the original illustrations of William Wallace Denslow, and the Wonderful Land of Oz itself was more in tune with the realm portrayed in the books.
When the film came out in the 80’s, families did not get the fun, colorful adventure they were expecting. In many cases, parents purportedly ushered their screaming kids out of the cinemas halfway through. Traumatized children isn’t the type of outcome Disney usually wants from its movies, so it consequently distanced itself from the film for a few years before tacitly reclaiming it when it started to gain a cult following.
Aside from the overtly scary scenes in the film, such as when the Wheelers chase Dorothy down a dark passage to a seemingly abandoned room, or when the Nome King’s face melts away near the end, there are many scenes that touch upon horror in a more insinuating way.
Right off the bat, Dorothy’s supposedly imaginary world of Oz is treated like a major mental illness. Rather than give her regular everyday therapy to help her cope with her delusions, her doctor decides that electroshock therapy is the way to go. To make Dorothy comfortable with the idea of having her fragile eggshell mind fried, the doctor shows her the machine that will permanently alter her sense of reality. The buttons and other doodads on this machine resemble the face of a robot. This provides the contraption with an anthropomorphic veneer that thinly conceals its true diabolical nature.
Dorothy is later strapped to a bed and sent to a room in an asylum that would make Bedlam hospital look like a tropical resort. Along the way she hears agonized screams coming from other sections, leaving the audience to wonder at this point whether they’ve stumbled into a slasher flick by mistake.
What audience members most probably won’t notice on initial viewing is that the male nurse wheeling her through the creepy asylum reappears later in Oz as a ‘wheeler’. Wheelers are freaky villains with wheels as hands and feet that look like they’ve jumped straight out of a new wave synthpop video clip.
Eerily enough, the squeaking noise made by the wheels of the bed as Dorothy moves to the room is exactly the same ominous sound that the Wheelers make when they first creep up on her in the now post-apocalyptic land of Oz.
This link between reality and Oz, along with many others in the film, is similar in ways to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Oz is like the shadow projected onto the cave wall that is a misrepresentation of the world outside. The real world influences Oz just as it influences dreams, suggesting that Oz might exist only in Dorothy’s head.
Dorothy supposedly manages to escape to Oz before the doctor has a chance to administer the electroshock therapy. Or does she? It’s possible that her trip to Oz is a dissociative result of the shock induced trauma, kind of like what happened to the character Sam Lowry in the other 1985 classic Brazil?
This is the kind of thing that kids might not pick up on, just as they might not fully understand that Dorothy might never have really gone to Oz in the Judy Garland film either, and that it was all just a similarly inspired fantasy back then as well.
In Return to Oz, many characters and objects seem to be inspired by things from reality. A Halloween pumpkin seen on a table in her room inspires the character Jack Pumpkinhead.
Tik-tok, the sole member of the royal army of Oz and one of the first robots to appear in modern literature, is inspired by the electroshock therapy machine. And one of the scariest characters, Queen Mombi, is the nurse from back in the asylum. The Nome King is also the doctor, characters that both appear calm and friendly at first but are clearly hiding evil intentions.
Plus, the only friend Dorothy makes at the asylum, a girl who we presume drowns, turns out to be Queen Ozma.
These hints might not be noticed on a conscious level initially, but they certainly play around on the lower floors of the building. As with the best horror films, the most horrifying elements of Return to Oz are not graphic.
It’s what’s implied in this movie that makes it so creepy.
When Dorothy first returns to the “wonderful” land of Oz, she immediately finds herself smack bang in the middle of the deadly desert: sand that turns anyone who touches it into sand. Luckily there are stepping stones scattered around that allow her to hop over to the safety of some grass. As she moves precariously over this eerily still realm of instant death, the audience is left to imagine what would happen to her with one false step.
Once in the “safe” part of Oz, Dorothy discovers that things are no longer marvelous. The yellow brick road looks like an earthquake tore it apart, and the city of Oz is deserted. There are no living people around, but it seems that at least one sculptor has been pretty busy because there are plenty of stone statues, some of which are headless.
Headless statues are usually nothing to worry about, there are plenty from history that are headless and limbless so there’s no apparent need for concern. That is until it is later revealed that the statues are really petrified people, and the headless ones have been decapitated. Once again there’s nothing graphic here, the heads aren’t shown being removed from their bodies, it’s just another concept introduced that will force you to use your imagination to join the creepy dots.
But where have their heads been taken, you might ask. Well, that’s where another dark element comes in. The horror in this story isn’t just there for the sake of scaring young children. All acts of carnage serve a practical purpose in the glorious realm of Oz. The wheels of the wheelers aren’t just used for mobility, they’re also used for cutting off heads. The heads aren’t just discarded either, they’re given to Mombi who wears them around like a Queen wears a crown.
When Dorothy first meets the character of PumpkinHead in Queen Mombi’s palace, it’s revealed that she had every intention of turning him into pumpkin soup but must have changed heads, along with their memories, at some point and thus forgot about it. Queen Mombi has a room filled with display cabinets all containing heads that are patiently waiting for their turn to be worn. This is the kind of thing that belongs in Hellraiser, not a Disney film.
One of the most subtly sinister and surreal moments however comes towards the end of the film, when Dorothy finds herself in a large exquisite hall in a mountain, filled with disparate objects. On its own this room is like something out of a Magritte painting, but when it’s revealed that all the objects are actually transmogrified citizens of Oz, the theme of displacement once again emerges. But once Dorothy figures out that all of her friends are emerald green ornaments, that’s when the war rage begins between her and the Nome King.
Lucky for her, eggs are poison to Nomes.
Of course, at the end of the film Dorothy helps return the land Oz back to its usual state and then returns to the drabness of Kansas. Only she’s cold, wet, lost, and filthy. Not only do her aunt and uncle find her, but they inform her there was a fire at the asylum. The doctor ran back inside to save his machines and he (The Nome King) died. The last thing we see is Dorothy staring off in the distance while the police usher a woman in a wagon off to jail. No surprise, it’s Queen Mombi, but that imagery of the two of them making silent eye contact is terrifying.
But with everything that has happened throughout her journey one is left wondering if she really did go to this magical realm somewhere over the rainbow, or if the whole thing happened inside her head as she was convulsing on a bed in the asylum. Until that very last shot appears, with Dorothy looking into a mirror where she sees Queen Ozma holding Dorothy’s chicken Belina. Dorothy shouts for Aunt Em to come see, but Ozma shakes her head, alluding to Dorothy that no one should ever see what she has seen. That Oz must stay in her head forever.
Dream? Reality? We’ll never be sure.
And neither will Dorothy.
Michael Casey has written a dark urban fantasy novel called ZoN, that aims to be just as dark and surreal as Return to Oz. You can find it here.