Friday, October 28, 2011

Still Film: Return to Oz (1985).

I can not gush enough about Halloween-themed Return to Oz (1985).  This was one of the most influential and haunting movies of my childhood although I only saw it a few times, I soaked it in, and it stayed with me.  I couldn't get it out of my head.  It was at once creepy and intriguing.   Although the film is fairly colorful, taking place at the turn of the century, it also has such a dark, gothic feel.  Strangely, I never realized until now, the wide-eyed brooding girl-hero was none other than a young Fairuza Balk of The Craft (1996) fame.  Strange that she even gave off a witchy, tormented vibe at such a tender age.  She is brilliantly spooky or spooked, though.  Her eyes are so wide open and clear blue but framed in dark circles like someone more jaded, tormented, running on little sleep from ghostly visions.

From the first scene, a silent night, the camera pans up the sleeping figure of a young girl.  And as you expect to see this sweet, sleeping cherub's face, as the camera closes in on her face you are confronted with the arresting look of a little girl with her eyes flung wide open in alarm.  Young Dorothy can't sleep.  She finds a key and believes her friends back in Oz need her help.  Her Aunty M takes her to a strange, pretentious Doctor who claims to have the cure via electric current.  He asks her to speak of her dream visions that Aunty M is so disturbed by, and he chuckles and recites his armchair-psychology analysis from his cushy office at the mental institution.  He speaks of science and electricity and progress.  The whole scene is imbued with a sense of mind-control and pseudo-science.  He reveals what he describes as the apex of progress-- a strange machine with a face made up of knobs and dials.   This machine will cure her.   I remember how horrifying it was to think that her aunt could leave her there, in this creepy hospital, blindly trusting this unscrupulous Doctor.   As she describes to the doctor her horrifying dreams of dismember friends in Oz, she sees a vision, like an alter-ego, of an angelic blonde about her age, her hand on the glass, peering at Dorothy from behind a frosted window.

Dorothy is left overnight and at some point not only visited by the blonde ghost again, but the workers at the institution who strap her to a gurney and wheel her to a lab room. While Dorothy is awaiting her shock treatments that night, she is visited by the blonde again.  From here she is transported by to a distorted, decrepit world of Oz that has decayed since her last visit.  Dorothy is also accompanied by a dowdy speaking chicken who's salt-of-the-earth, old-timey comedy quips begin to grate as the movie continues.... One of the first signs of the wonder of Oz, which goes unnoticed by Dorothy, is the eerie faces on the rocks which appear and seem to be keeping an eye on her movements.

I have the utmost respect for this movie as a children's film as there are few creepier, and the movie is shot in such a sophisticated way, revealing the onion-layers of Oz with such slow treacherous splendor.  The soundtrack is equally sophisticated as the cinematography-- which calls into question the validity of dreams, the line between sanity and mental illness, concepts of brainwashing... All this can be gleaned, not as much from the plot, which is very simple and at times a bit silly, but from the complexities of visual symbols in the scenes and the relationships of the strange characters involved and how they live in this strange disjointed world.  Being that the film was made in the 80s but capturing a turn-of-the-century Dorothy,  it really adds the the strange feel that its all taking place in an alternate dimension.  At times it reminds me of Zanadu, do to the special effects that give off chintzy neon glows.  At times its a little Alice in Wonderland... The director is always focusing on the power of beautiful objects like keys and tonics to help add Dorothy on her journey.  There is also a very psychedelically-lit scene where Dorothy falls down a tunnel that I find very mesmerizingly Alice-like.  Sometimes I think of the more-modern Secret Garden film from 1993... It delicately dealt with its adventurous heroine and the magic she was uncovering in a similar fashion and features the wide-eyed Dorothy in a similar gorgeously shadowed lighting.   There is also an emaciated, big headed Jack-o-Lantern character that gives it an oh-so-Halloween vibe and I can't help to think that A Nightmare Before Christmas was influenced by him.   I also think of the 70s take on Oz featuring the glorious, star-studded, soul music cast.  There is a similar color and casual, modernity of the characters that may be more about the era than the influence of that particular Oz movie on it.

Stay tuned:  Part 2 tomorrow....


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