This ICHF was written by Title Known, who you can find at http://titleknown.tumblr.com/. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
Art by Titleknown.
Ah Return To Oz, one of the great cult classics of 80s fantasy. Bombing at the box office due to sheer nightmare fuel but finding an audience over the years and; as I have noticed; far more beloved by fans of the actual long-running original Oz book series than the better-known MGM film.
The biggest question one has to ask about Return To Oz being included as an ICHF is: Is it even a horror piece? I did include it based on the ideas of a friend of mine who has a…. shall we say, unorthodox perspective on such things, and TT even wasn’t sure about it, but there is a case to be made.
Namely: Unlike other films of that 80s fantasy boom (Which I wish more modern films would take influence from), it is specifically defined by those horror elements, rather than having them as flavor like; say; The Neverending Story or The Dark Crystal.
Like, let us take the film’s opening. Instead of the Wizard Of Oz’s wistful musical number and then being whisked away into a technicolor fantasy land, how does it start? As a slow burn with Dorothy being taken to be “treated” for her talking about Oz, in what is revealed within a slow burn to be a horrifying old-timey asylumization situation, complete with electroshock therapy. The audience is drawn into the aspects of suspense with that slow burn revealing the darker elements,
And, so it goes too when she reaches Oz, there’s not the joyous chorus of Munkchkinland, but the slow reveal that something is very wrong. That the Emerald City has been turned into a wasteland of people made into statues, and inhabited by horrifying wheeled monsters is a slow burn, but even from the first look at the devastated yellow brick road, we know: something is wrong here. And, regarding those wheeled monsters, note how they lose the more comical elements of their defeat from the one of the original two books this was made from, in favor of pure lmice
And, so too when Dorothy gets to the palace with her new friend Tik Tok, and then we meet… Princess Mombi. And, while I could have used the film’s true antagonist; the horrifying Will Vinton-claymation Nome King; as the header for this, I picked Mombi (A composite character of Princess Languidire from Ozma of Oz and Mombi the Witch from The Magical Land of Oz) because she absolutely exemplifies that suspense I talk about.
We get a sense that something is wrong when this decadent aristocrat looks at Dorothy, while languidly strumming at a musical instrument, and seems to inspect her head, as if it were a piece of ripe fruit.
And the discomfort is further sealed when Mombi takes Dorothy into a hall of disembodied heads on stands. Disembodied real; human heads. And they’re still alive.
And then there is that squirmingly uncomfortable reveal when she takes off what we thought was her regular head, and replaces it with another one from her shelf. Right after she says Dorothy’s head will look interesting when it “ripens” and locks her up.
Cut to a bit later, after Dorothy has met a friend Jack Pumpkinhead after being locked up, and she has to retrieve the “Powder of Life” from the cabinet with Mombi’s original head She sneaks through, slowly, surely, tensely, retrieving the key from the headless Mombi’s neck. She opens the cabinet, carefully grabs the bottle, but then she slips….
And the head wakes up. And it begins screaming her name.“Dorothy Gaaaaaaaail. Dorothy Gaaaaaaaail!” And the other heads start screaming. And her headless body gets up to scramble for her original head. Sweet Jesus.
And, this is a climactic moment, a setpiece, a thing one remembers scarred into their brain.
And, with the whole film, while its ending is triumphant and beautiful, most of its runtime is filled with this suspense from the sense of wrongness of it all. Of how the beautiful world of Oz is devastated into a decaying wasteland and the slow; grim burn as to how this came to happen, with moments of pure nightmare fuel as the greatest highlights, whether it be Mombi’s hall of heads, the city of cackling Wheelers beforehand or the Nome King’s furious rampage near the end, almost all of the major setpieces are moments of terror after a long buildup of discomfort. Like a horror film.
It reminds me of another modern work; a video game; that is supposedly simply dark fantasy, but due to its own slow burn revelations about the mysteries of how its world came to ruin, combined with its gargantuanly grim setpieces, there’s also a case for it being one of the great modern horror works of its medium…
Yes, I am saying that Return to Oz is the Dark Souls of 80s fantasy films. I’m not sorry. But, if ever there is a case for expanding what we call horror, it is Return To Oz.
Editor’s Note: Yeah I originally wasn’t sure whether this can count as a Horror character, but when I read the movie synopsis and saw it started with Dorothy almost getting electroshock therapy, it did feel like there was a case to be made for it. I still haven’t seen Return to Oz so I can’t say for certain whether it counts, but I feel a good argument for its inclusion has been made here.