Let’s get into it, as there is four more entries afterward.
Return to Oz (1985)
Return to Oz is a reminder that Disney wasn’t always this frightening, property devouring, near-monopoly we know now. In the 1980s, they were going through a rough period which eventually led to the Disney Renaissance I was born into. Back in that decade, the House of Mouse experimented, in animation and in live-action. Right before the decade ended with their return to power with The Little Mermaid, their biggest successes could really be in cultivating a whole bunch of cult classics or mediocre works which no one really remembers anymore.
For a time, Return to Oz was seen in the latter category. “What’s this, Disney trying to do their own sequel to one of the most recognizable movies of all time? I’ll pass, but I might let my kids watch it on TV or video later maybe.”
Like a lot of stuff from the 80s’, such as much of what you will see me covering in this year’s Horrorthon, being given the ‘cult’ distinction would be Return to Oz’s salvation. It has been applauded by fans of L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books for being more faithful to the look and tone of his works, especially in one quite important category. Obviously, the impact of those young who saw it can’t be understated. Kids loved it and perhaps many of them hated it at the same time.
The header image might give you some idea of what I’m talking about. The designs of Dorothy’s friends old and new, while inspired, all have a slightly off look to them, though again that could be the point. The only ones that don’t really have anything that kinda freaks me out is the Cowardly Lion unsurprisingly and Billina the talking chicken.
Then again, more than a few might have been freaked out over the years by the appearences of some of the characters in the original 1939 movie, and I mean more than just the Wicked Witch. In atmosphere, sound and aesthetic, Return to Oz screams a type of family classic that could only have been made in its time and that makes it somewhat special.
Visuals alone aren’t what make Return to Oz into a potentially or provably frightening movie for younger audiences. I was kinda apprehensive myself watching it as a person approaching 30. Some of the implications and context for what Dorothy goes through can be pretty messed.
Before Dorothy returns to what I and many others adamantly believe is a real place in her universe, not just a dream dammit, she is sent to a …sanitarium. Just a heads up, I am aware that this movie is partially adapted from two different Oz books, but when it comes to the opening occurring at again, a sanitarium, got no idea if Baum ever touched on the idea that people might think Dorothy was delusional and attempt to “cure” her.
In this movie, that’s how it starts. Dorothy, portrayed by Fairuza Balk, is presented as a more accurate pre-adolescent girl unlike late teens Judy Garland. This is how she was in all or most of the books. Her lovable Aunt and Uncle want to help her let go of all of these stories of Oz and her whimsical friends so at the sanitarium, the doctor played by Nicol Williamson, plans to use turn of the century scientific advancement to rid her of these supposed delusions. If you guessed it, then congratulations, Dorothy is in for some shock therapy, replete with her tied down to a rolling hospital bed.
Now before you contemporary parents reading this blog panic, don’t worry, Dorothy doesn’t actually go through the “therapy”. Could this film have gotten it’s family-friendly rating if it had? Instead, a fortuitous power outage occurs and Dorothy is able to escape during the outage caused by a thunderstorm by a mysterious blonde girl who resembles, though not exactly, Dorothy herself. Eventually, the head nurse, Wilson (Jean Marsh), who did a terrible job falsely reassuring Dorothy that the procedure would be painless, starts chasing down Dorothy and the blonde girl during the storm.
They reach the river and soon, like the twister from before, the river raging during the storm is the catalyst allowing Dorothy to, ahem, return to Oz. The blonde girl is separated from Dorothy in the deluge and who she actually is revealed by the end.
I would like to take this time to tell you about a video game released in the year 2000, created by a man called American McGee, who was a key designer on the original, pioneering first person shooters of the 90s: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom II and Quake. Eventually, McGee left Id Software who developed those classics and made his own studio. He wanted to express his dark imagination in a manner different from the stories of muscle-bound, one-man armies who slew Nazis, demons and strange monsters.
He wanted to use the technology that built his designs on a third person adventure through a dark, quite Victorian nightmare version of Wonderland, with an Alice tormented by guilt that she couldn’t save her family in a freak fire. The Wonderland you see in American McGee’s Alice is beautiful yet twisted, accompanied by a fantastically grim score by Chris Vrenna, one of the members of Nine Inch Nails.
The now aged graphics actually keep this Wonderland’s distorted take fresh and moody. It’s replete with many references to the trauma Alice is going through both from her survivor’s guilt and from the doubtlessly miserable treatment from an insane asylum in the 19th century bleeding in and informing the denizens, enemy and nominally friendly, and architecture of this brilliantly realized take on a century-plus old story.
I won’t show any footage of this game, in case you have motion sickness issues and this is also an M-rated game which uses its mature license intelligently, but I sure will give you a listen to one of Vrenna’s amazingly moody tracks. It should be noted that he used both Victorian musical instruments and sounds from children’s toys to make the soundtrack unique, up to this very day.
Now, I’m not saying that Return to Oz goes as hard as this game, because it doesn’t, but man does it go as hard as a PG rating could, if only in the “unsettling imagery” department. I don’t actually want to spoil any of the potential spooks Dorothy’s return trip has in store, but it does elicit such a response that I was reminded of American McGee at all.
One thing that stays true no matter how darker this take got was Dorothy’s refreshingly fresh-faced, kind personality, which no matter what situation she got into, never lost her cool. There is plenty in this movie that would make any girl her age scream her lungs out, but I don’t recall her doing so. Then again, this is not her first rodeo.
The question of whether this is a sequel to the 1939 movie is a difficult one. While Dorothy has made friends with the old pack, including Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow and defeated the Wicked Witch, there are references to things that Dorothy saw and did that didn’t happen in the original movie. It feels more like a cinematic continuation of the original book from 1900 than the movie, which might have been partially responsible for the film’s dismal box office: confused marketing.
No matter how creepy and off-putting Dorothy’s new friends appeared such as Jack Pumpkinhead, the automaton Tik-Tok and the Gump, essentially a re-animated green moose-head that talks, Dorothy never shows any fear once she knows they aren’t a danger. It’s Dorothy’s straightforward appreciation for her new friends’ help in spite of their appearence that creates this strange feeling during the proceedings and does almost as much as the effects and score by David Shire in nailing this “only of its time” takeaway.
Speaking of the effects, the stop-motion used for the Nomes, the magical stone race which has conquered Oz in Dorothy’s absence are incredible. It’s an effect that CGI could never replicate and honestly does better than anything else in selling the feeling Dorothy is in a supernatural world. While the Nome spy often stands out in my head, it’s the Nome King played by Nicol Williamson (curious…) that is the star attraction. It’s like if the rock guy from Neverending Story was entirely stop motion and villainous.
Likely to save money, when Dorothy confronts the King in his mountain lair, he gradually transforms into a human-looking guy with makeup. At first, I thought it was a bizarre slip-up from the effects team, but it’s so deliberate it can’t be.
It also shows how as his conversation and eventual challenge to Dorothy progresses, he grows more and more confident he will win out in the end over Dorothy and Co., in spite of being in the presence of the girl who brought down the Wicked Witch. The other main antagonist is the witch Mombi played by Jean Marsh (And you were there!), once a servant of the ruler of Oz, which is the Scarecrow. Deciding that the Nome King would be a better fit considering her nefarious habits, she almost single-handedly conquers the Emerald City, freezing to marble almost the entire population like Medusa. That’s the fate that befalls Tin Man and Cowardly Lion.
Scarecrow is instead captured and taken to the Nome King as prisoner and play-thing. Tik-Tok is the only one left in the city that can help Dorothy and even that’s a problem as she’s got to remember to literally wind up his processes to keep him going. Tik-Tok might be my favorite new companion due to his unfailing humility and awareness that he is not nor ever will be alive. Unlike Scarecrow and Tin Man who desired to be more real, Tik-Tok knows he was created to serve the people of Oz, nothing more, nothing less. Dorothy doubts he’s truly unalive, as wouldn’t you know it begins to cry green oil near film’s end. Fun fact is that Tik-Tok is one of the earliest instances of a robot in fiction. He debuted before the word “robot” was even invented.
In spite of his colorful and seasonally appropriate look, I didn’t like Jack Pumpkinhead as much as I would’ve liked. That he never moves his mouth while speaking might’ve been part of it. That he asks Dorothy permission to call her “Mom” and she agrees is also kind of creepy. Billina the chicken was honestly annoying and the Gump came at times too close to being “too weird” though in this more book-accurate Oz movie, is there really a limit? I suppose not, so long as it doesn’t become anachronistic.
In spite of the praise I’ve given this movie, it doesn’t feel as much of an adventure as the original movie. The places Dorothy journeys to are fewer even if it does keep the pace going at good speed. I will say this much, this is a trip that does not overstay its welcome and it might accommodate those who may have less tolerance for the visuals of this movie.
For those like myself, It’s a fun movie just to look at and Shire’s music perfectly fits with the kind of tone it’s going for, of being set at turn of the century America and by that I mean 1899-1900, and how 80s’ cinema could visualize that period is exceptionally its own. The film ending as a sepiatone photograph with Shire’s music swelling is honestly too perfect. It conjured up memories of movies I’ve seen from this period of film-making when I was young like The Adventures of Milo and Otis (Still can’t believe that film is Japanese-made.)
I say this about a lot of cult classics and I will come across to some as a broken record but you should seriously check out this movie if you haven’t. Bring the kids if you have em’ but keep them with you when watching.
The Company of Wolves (1984) (U.K.)
That header image joke aside, it is rather amusing that as Marvel releases their first “Special Presentation”, Werewolf by Night, which in turn is one of Phase 4’s best offerings, I had in my catalogue of movies for the Horrorthon quite a few involving werewolves or adjacents. I didn’t plan on it, as I scheduled the series before I knew Werewolf by Night was releasing at that time. It’s not the first time a Horrorthon has covered werewolf movies, as I did back to back earlier with Wolfen, The Howling and my favorite of the bunch, An American Werewolf in London.
Now, we have Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, based off the novel by Angela Carter, who cowrote it. If Jordan sounds familiar, it’s because he made The Crying Game. Jordan seems to have an interest in making movies about toying with human sexuality.
A young British girl named Rosaleen is stuck in her room by a family that can’t seem to stand her. Her father is played by David Warner and mother by Tusse Silberg. Her sister is most vocal about her displeasure. This girl begins a really long dream set in 18th century England. A dream so crazy deep, that it soon involves characters in her dream retelling old events or tales on top of themselves dreaming. I would make a joke relating to Christopher Nolan, but that joke was played out 11 years ago.
All the characters in her dream including herself share their names and appearences and live in a time when beasts from the woods were the primary concern. Dream-Rosaleen has a grandmother only called “grandmother” because of course. She is played by Angela Lansbury, the lead from Murder, She Wrote and more significantly for people my age and younger, the original voice for Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast.
It is quite a thing that she would be in two different projects involving a growing into adulthood woman protagonist who becomes drawn to a man, who is well, beastly. Her role outside of its importance to this movie drew even more attention for me when writing this due to her recent passing at the far too young age of 96. To be honest, I assumed Lansbury based on her (maybe) made up appearence here had already died. Shows what I know.
Lansbury’s grandmother is the stern kind of grandmother, which is unsurprising considering how rougher life is in this world than ours. She keeps telling Dream Rosaleen to beware any man who has a unibrow as that is a telltale sign he’s a werewolf.
It should be noted that keeping track of what’s happening in this movie was for me a real doozy of a challenge. Again, this is all a dream and based on mine and likely your experience, chronology in a dream can be hard to process. Of course, compared to dreams real people have there is a logic and straightforwardness in individual sequences here. Might be that Rosaleen’s dreaming is more than that.
What helps keep Company of Wolves from sinking into an entirely confusing experience is that there are core themes and ideas that kept me from drifting off myself. The idea at the heart is that this is a deconstructionist gothic fairy tale, where it’s all about dispelling old notions of sexual morality.
Red Riding Hood is given essentially a send-up, what with Rosaleen donning a red hood and meeting a man who turns into a wolf, as the Huntsman and the big bad wolf are fused together. The grandmother is killed and Rosaleen as Red is surprisingly not that bothered by it. That could be because granny is honestly pretty unlikable and she is proven time and again that her superstition and morals if not incorrect, inaccurate and misplaced.
There’s also the animal magnetism of the werewolf huntsman and how he explains to Rosaleen that monsters like the werewolf or the wolves themselves are not inherently evil. The huntsman wouldn’t have hurt granny had she not responded with fear and violence on him. Had she just been chill, so would the werewolf.
Of course, the big theme, that of a woman not just accepting her own burgeoning sexuality as she grows but that of a man’s, is the big takeaway. Yes, a man can abuse his sexual nature and act like an animal, but not necessarily will. Rosaleen comes to accept this primal person in spite of the beastly aspects, much like how a woman should not live in paranoid fear of men in general in spite of what they are potentially capable of. Women are also capable of committing sexual trauma and misuse, not as often but it is an uncomfortable reality that men have been raped by women.
In the end, right before the “real” Rosaleen awakes from her dream, the townsfolk searching for her see two wolves break out the window of granny’s home. She has embraced the carnal aspects of who she is, and sees no shame in what is inherently hers.
The films’ full-blown conclusion, of what happens when the real Rosaleen wakes up, can come across as a headscratcher as it did for me. Thematically, I got what the ending meant, but it did leave some basic questions unanswered. Jordan and Carter did so deliberately, as they want you to ponder how the obvious implications and insinuations of the movie apply to all the stuff that isn’t blatantly laid out.
The wintery look of the dreamworld, of a really old British forest with beasts of many shapes and sizes creates this really interesting atmosphere that like Return to Oz, tapped on old feelings and emotions I’ve had. It’s not unlike how Luke in Empire Strikes Back remarks about how the swamp planet Dagobah reminds him of something from his past. Even though the lore never really shores up Luke’s comments but whatever.
As for the effects, namely for the werewolves, they’re mostly great though they can come across too often like obvious effects where the seams are showing. The idea behind the werewolf transformations are quite great as even though these were-people can transform back and forth, it’s as if one form is totally destroyed to make way for the other. You have to see it to really get it and it’s possibly the most painful looking process for transforming I’ve seen other than American Werewolf in London.
I can’t guarantee you will quite like this movie. Part of me has mixed feelings on the aspects of how this movie goes about proceeding with some segments involving tales being told seemingly unrelated to what is going on overall. I get that it being an elaborate “dreamscape” is the point and the intimate themes at play does give it a certain power that does allow me something to think about, namely how far removed are our sexual instincts we now have from the sexual instincts we had when we were just animals a long, long, long time ago.
The Company of Wolves is many things and its takeaways are certainly not going to be equally embraced, especially based on one’s own sexual code or perhaps insecurities. One thing I think can be universally agreed upon that no matter where you come from, man, woman or non-binary, one must confront their sexuality and on some level, come to terms with it. Not doing so will only make matters worse.
On one last lighter note, some of the wolves shown in the movie are clearly not wolves but dogs. It’s the “unwolflike” look of those dogs that can take you the most out of what is otherwise a haunting but not wholly scary experience.
Next time, a bewildering if remarkable cult classic work from the Cannon Group and two mid-decade flicks based on the works of our “Maine” man Stephen King.