Return to Oz, the terrifying sequel to Wizard of Oz, isn’t just disturbing. It’s also a brutally sad movie that attempts to look at the long-term effects of childhood trauma through the lens of a young girl trying to return to a fantasy world that’s been completely upended. This weird Wizard of Oz sequel fits into the canon of scary Disney movies that were either ahead of their time or just completely misguided. Like much of what happens in the land of Oz, whether you think the dark Disney movie Return to Oz is a miscalculation or a secret treasure is a matter of perspective.
Scary children's movies are a necessity. They prepare kids for the dark world waiting for them upon entering adulthood and they help them understand that not everything has a happy ending. But Return to Oz may have been a little too dark. It’s a film that leans into its Jim Henson meets David Lynch aesthetic from moment one and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Keep reading to discover the most horrifying things about Return to Oz and beware the Wheelers.
Dorothy's Stay At The Asylum Is Nightmare Fuel
When Dorothy is brought to Dr. Worley's asylum the audience finally gets to experience the terror of Return to Oz at its most unhinged. Yes, the rest of the film features men on wheels, a headless woman, and a godlike mountain, but none of those plot points are as horrifying as seeing an 11-year-old girl strapped to a table in preparation to have her brains scrambled. The only moments of "levity" in the first third of the film come when the audience realizes that everyone and everything that they see in the asylum will make an appearance in the land of Oz.
Unfortunately that's lost on any children in the audience who are no doubt confused as to why Dorothy is disassociating and allowing her personality to split in two. Once locked in her chamber by Nurse Wilson, Dorothy stays herself while becoming a small blonde girl (later revealed to be Ozma) who only appears in the dark or in Dorothy's reflection. To underscore the horror of the asylum each scene is soundtracked with the screams of disembodied voices coming from the cellar.
Princess Mombi's Disembodied Heads
Return to Oz is full of existential horror, open ended questions about childhood trauma and its relation to depression, and the death of youth, but it also has a room full of screaming heads. After escaping the Wheelers, Dorothy finds herself in the burned out ruins of the witch Mombi's castle where she hangs out playing the lute all day while swapping out heads. There are two scenes where Dorothy is lead down a hallway of disembodied heads. The first is when it's revealed that Mombi is swapping heads in order to suit her moods. The heads are the imaginary counterparts to the disembodied voices living in the cellar of the insane asylum - each one calling out for something that they've lost.
Even if you don't connect those semiotic dots it's still horrifying to see a character walk into a room full of living heads, pull off her head, and then attach a decapitated head onto her neck. For a child this is basically a scene from a David Cronenberg film. The only thing that can top it is during Dorothy's second trip to the head hall when she bumps into head number one before it begins screaming "DOROTHY GALE!" The rest of the heads follow suit, fueling the nightmares of anyone under the age of 12.
Beware The Wheelers
Even if you only watched Return to Oz once, you remember the Wheelers. You probably remember these howling half-man, half-hoverboards getting far more screen time than they actually garner. As an adult it's easy to appreciate Walter Murch (the film's director) teasing the Wheelers in the real world with the orderlies pushing squeaky hospital trollies, but once these creeps start speeding around and howling at Dorothy all appreciation of semiotics and foreshadowing goes out the window.
With their Krusty the Clown-meets-Freddie Krueger laughs, the Wheelers give off the eerie feeling provided by every heroin addict you've ever had to endure on a city bus. Their limbs flail like air dancers in a used car lot and they sneer like the the imaginary faces that leer at you from darkened closet interiors - the Wheelers are desperately jockeying to be in your next nightmare.
No Thank You To The Nome King
Everything about the Nome King is creepy. His big rock face. The way he emotes with his too-blue eyes. And who can forget the coquettish way he models his ruby slippers? Aside from his grotesque look and mannerisms the Nome King's particular delight is sending people to their deaths in a rather dark game. Basically a character has to walk into a room full of knick knacks and try to guess which one used to be someone from Oz. If they guess wrong that person is turned into a knick knack in a bright strobe light flash. It's kind of like a scene from Twin Peaks except it's the last 20 minutes of a movie.
The villains of Oz are always scary. During Easter airings of the 1939 Wizard of Oz it wasn't out of the ordinary for a certain writer to hide behind his mother's couch when the camera pushed in on the Wicked Witch of the West laughing inside the crystal ball. The difference between the Wicked Witch and The Nome King all comes down to how the characters are played. Margaret Hamilton played the Wicked Witch with an arch strut while Nicol Williamson's Nome King has an understated menace. While the Wicked Witch just wanted Dorothy's ruby slippers, the Nome King wants to consume Dorothy, to keep her all to himself. There's a big difference there.