1. Ah, 1985. I was just a kid. A young kid. And my folks took me to see Walter Murch’s Return to Oz, an unofficial sequel to The Wizard of Oz.
Return to Oz is a film so bleak and dark and bizarre that its imagery still lives in the nooks of my nightmares.
2. Not that I didn’t enjoy Return to Oz—to be clear, I did. But it horrified me in ways that surpassed the deep horror I’d experienced viewing the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.
3. (The green Wicked Witch cackling “I’ll get you my pretty” in The Wizard of Oz being something of a founding moment of horrific horror, a horror amplified by my mother’s tendency to act out the line at weird moments as she tickled me or chased me or picked me up from school).
4. But Return to Oz: this movie is dark. It’s fucked up.
Dorothy gets institutionalized and treated with electroshock therapy. Then she goes to Oz, where she’s pursued by Wheelers, these things that roll around on rollerskate hands and feet, which, you know, should be whimsical, but are instead horrific. Then there’s this cabinet of detached heads, which could have been handled playfully, but no, instead it’s like something out of Hieronymus Bosch. Even Dorothy’s friends are these weird, off-putting versions that don’t match up to the original trio of Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion. Instead we get Tik-Tok, an android who looks like a swollen pot-bellied C3PO, and Jack Pumpkinhead, a guy with a pumpkin for a head. These friends don’t look human at all (because they aren’t). There’s a quest; they cross a desert; they save the day, etc.
It ends with Dorothy returned, not exactly safely, to aunt and uncle.
5. So Disney made another unofficial sequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, this time from director Sam Raimi (Return’s Murch never directed another film, by the way). Despite his franchise work on the first trilogy of Spider-Man films, Raimi is an auteur who gave us cult classics like Darkman and the Evil Dead trilogy. I loved his last film Drag Me to Hell, which mixed humor and with noir and genuine horror.
6. Oz the Great and Powerful is of course doomed, no matter how much money it makes. It’s doomed in the way that The Two Jakes was doomed, or Godfather III was doomed, or Citizen Kane 2: Electric Boogaloo was doomed: There’s no way that it can surpass, let alone stand up next to, the strength of the prototype.
7. Still, I think that if Raimi has brought enough of his own weirdness to the film, we might get a fascinating artifact. My real hope is that there will be a strong streak of Evil Dead 2 in Raimi’s Disney, a streak of bizarre dark weirdness to baffle and disturb a new generation. Hell, maybe I’ll take my kids.