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.
Tik-Tok's Slow, Slow Death
Throughout the film Tik-Tok, the one man army of Oz, is Dorothy's protector. He saves her from the Wheelers, helps fight off Mombi, and uses his mechanical noggin to try and stop the Nome King. Unfortunately every moment he's on screen he reminds the audience of their inevitable deaths. When Tik-Tok first wakes up he not only explains what happens to Emerald City, but he explains how he came to be a broken down hunk of metal in a secret room. He tells Dorothy: "I called for help until my voice ran down. Then I paced back and forth until my action ran down. Then I thought until my thought ran down." At one point he brags, "I am not alive and never will be." It must be freeing to be aware of the inevitability of your death and simply not care.