“So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can't plant me in your penthouse
I'm going back to my plough
Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I've finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road”
- Elton John, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
In 1985, the Disney film Return to Oz was released in cinemas, and a few years later made its way onto home VHS.
I must have been about five years old when I saw it; in those days, it took almost two years for a film to filter its way onto a VHS tape. I knew right away that there was something unusual about the film, something especially unique, magical, and somehow peculiarly disturbing. I remember that the first time I saw it, I had almost cried in fear. But still, despite that, I had watched the film, glued in place in front of the television, unable to move my eyes from the screen. As I was to grow older, other films would affect me just as strongly, but none would ever do so as deeply as Return to Oz, my first truly scary film.
Truth be told, it genuinely is a bloody scary film, as was noted by the reviews for the time. But just to explain, before I continue any further, this is by no means a ghost story, so don't worry as this isn't a story of a haunted video tape or any such thing. The film itself played out perfectly normally, as much as possible. Dorothy didn't turn to the camera and start screaming while blood poured from her eyes, or anything stupidly melodramatic like that. I'm not interested in telling you stupid stories like you've read a hundred times before. I just want to tell you how I felt when I watched this video, and some of the strange things that it reminded me about. How it changed my life.
The film has an extremely unusual storyline, and I really wonder quite what the producer, Paul Maslansky, was thinking at the time. I know that the power behind the film didn't really rest with him; instead it rested with the film's director, Walter Murch. A specialist in sound and editing, Murch worked on editing for films like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, but Return to Oz was his only venture into directing. I keep thinking that something may have affected him during production of this film, maybe something that put him off directing any films from then onwards. Perhaps it was the financial failure of the film at the box office, or maybe there was more studio interference than he had anticipated which soured him to the idea of directing anything further. But that's just a simple uneducated guess.
My mother got a copy of the film on VHS. I remember distinctly, because she also had a copy of the old Judy Garland musical version. She loved that film. I was somewhat less impressed with it. The sepia opening, for a child who was used to colour television, seemed boring to me, archaic and alienating. I didn't care for the dancing, and the witch didn't impress me. All the sets looked just too false, and as a result of all of these factors I inevitably found myself not appreciating the film. My mother, though, loved it. When I was an adult, she told me about Judy Garland's drug addiction and her gradual fall from Hollywood grace, a story that felt equally tragic to anything on the silver screen. Return to Oz, however, wasn't a true sequel to the classic, not in any real sense. In fact, the only thing that connected it to the musical version was the presence of Ruby Slippers, which were silver in the original book. The film in general has far more in common with the books, being something of a mix of different characters, themes and events from several of Baum’s works, only without the musical numbers and liberal use of Technicolor. But my mother was still excited to see it, so she had asked a friend to find her a copy of the film, and we had watched it.
The film tells the story of Dorothy's return to the wonderful Land of Oz. Or at least, it should be wonderful, but in this film it isn’t quite so. Despite this she is still desperate to go back, and when we first meet her in the film she is very depressed, miserable and lonely. The very first image we have in the film is her staring sadly as she lays on her bed, unable to sleep, and we learn that she has suffered such insomnia since her first visit to Oz. It is not long her family take her to a hospital, leaving her beloved dog Toto behind, and this is where the film truly begins.
At the hospital, which it transpires is more of an asylum; Dorothy is introduced to a doctor. Keen to try out the newly-invented electric ‘healing machine’, the doctor introduces Dorothy to it, pointing out the machine's features. "Here," he explains, pointing to the voltage meter "Is its nose. And here," he explains, pointing to the switch that will send crackling shocks of electricity searing through the young girl's skull, "is his mouth." The innocence of this statement seemed only peculiar to me as a child, yet now when I think of it I instead feel a great sense of discomfort.
She is escorted down into the bowels of the hospital, through tall and towering hallways, and locked within a barren, empty room. That night, she is strapped to a hospital bed. Whilst the screams of other inmates echo through the hospital, she is secured to the electric machine. A storm rages outside and soon it knocks out the hospital's power, during which Dorothy is rescued by another young girl. Together they flee into the river at the banks of the hospital, where they...
I mean, Dorothy returns to the Land of Oz She journeys there in the ruins of an old crate, floating down the river. That's the way the story goes. But that's not all that happens. In the classic version of The Wizard of Oz, the one with Judy Garland, Dorothy's house is plucked out of the farm by a tornado. We all know that tornadoes don't move people from one location and drop them, gently and carefully, down in another. If she had been a real person, caught in a small wooden farmhouse in the winds of a hurricane, Dorothy would have died. And maybe she did, and all the rest of the film was simply a hallucination within her fevered and frantic brain.
No, that's just a theory. In this film, in Return to Oz, Dorothy falls into the churning waters of the river, struggling to stay above its surface, her arms splashing, her mouth gasping for air. And then...
Then she's in Oz. And for a few moments, everything seems fine. Everything seems quite happy. She finds a talking chicken called Billina, who offers to travel with her on the way to the Emerald City. Along the way, she finds a tree which distributes lunchboxes, filled with ready-made sandwiches. It's almost like everything may turn out alright once they get to the Emerald City, because then she'll be able to get back to her farm.
Her farm. Where she sat staring into the distance, her eyes heavy with despair, with her crippled father and her mother facing financial ruin. David Kehr of the Chicago Reader described this film as: 'Bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying.' You don't want Dorothy to go home, not to the world full of doctors who want to rip the happiness from her, from the nurses who tie her down, from the towering hallways and electric machines with wide grinning mouths.