Return to Oz has haunted Liz Schulze for her entire life, even if she doesn’t remember actually seeing it.
“I had these weird childhood images in my head that I just couldn’t contextualize,” Schulze tells the Straight, explaining that she finally figured out where the disturbing infant memories came from when she stumbled on the video case as an adult.
Some 27 after it was released, she now reckons that Disney’s freaky, mid-‘80s “sequel” to The Wizard of Oz is “really one of the best children’s films ever made.”
Schulze is the education manager at the Cinematheque, and a guiding force behind the rep theatre’s family-oriented Sunday Cinema series. Things get a little darker this year with a new theme, Family Frights, which Schulze inaugurates on Sunday (January 20) with the strange, Walter Murch-directed film.
Return to Oz wasn’t popular with Disney officials when Murch delivered his movie in 1985. Audiences tended to agree, although it clearly made a deep impression on some kids with its unsettling vision of the jabbering, half-mechanical Wheelers, dreaded Nome King, or Princess Mombi with her array of stolen heads—all of it preceded by a sequence in which Dorothy (Vancouverite Fairuza Balk) is given electroshock treatment! The film has developed its own cult since then, along with a fairly remarkable array of interpretations.
“There’s a lot of theory and analysis and discourse around the film, and I don’t think Murch intended for that to happen,” Schulze offers. “I think he was just going for a darker, more raw impression of things. But nevertheless, there is something very powerful about the film as a result. It does resonate on all those different levels.”
Schulze’s intention is to curate a series of well-known films that “have this interesting boundary pushing between the world of the safe children’s film and the world of the dark medieval fairytale, where really anything can happen. As a child you’re kind of introduced to the lack of safety in the world in this way. I just find it to be a really profound theme.”
Among the picks in coming weeks are Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Flight of the Navigator, Gremlins, NeverEnding Story, Cloak & Dagger, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Peanut Butter Solution, and the original versions of Escape to Witch Mountain and Transformers.
And then there’s The Goonies, a film that made Schulze “hysterical” as a child. “I demanded that we leave,” she chuckles. “And it’s terrifying, that film. There’s murderers chasing children through a labyrinth of deadly traps—that’s an amazing concept!”
The series might not be for everyone, of course—Schulze readily acknowledges that. But if the seven-and-a-half year old weirdo that shares my home is any indication, kids have a genuine hunger for the morbid and the uncanny, or material that says, “Here’s your world, just a little bit off,” as Schulze puts it.
“And honestly?” she says, “They’re seeing worse on primetime television all the time.”
Return to Oz screens at the Cinematheque on Sunday (January 20) at 1:00