Blog Archives

Dorothy Gale Week Day 5: Fairuza Balk in Return to Oz (1985)

returnozDirector: Walter Murch

Writer: Walter Murch, Gill Dennis, based on the novels The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Matt Clark, Sean Barrett, Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, Mak Wilson, Denise Bryer, Brian Henson, Lyle Conway, Justin Case, John Alexander, Deep Roy, Emma Ridley, Sophie Ward, Fiona Victory, Pons Maar

Plot: It has been six months since Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) came home following her adventure in Oz. Her Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) is working to rebuild the farm, destroyed by the tornado, and Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) is worried that the little girl is sleepless, stuck imagining the fairy land she “dreamed” about before. Dorothy scolds a chicken named Billina who has been unable to produce eggs, and finds an old key in the chicken coop. The design on the end of it seems to bear an “O-Z” – the symbol of the land of Oz. She shows it to Em as proof of her stories, but it only furthers her resolve to bring Dorothy to the a doctor. She tells Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) her stories of Oz, of her friends, of the Ruby Slippers that were lost as she flew home. Worley unveils an electrical device with a “face” that may cure her, and Dorothy sees a reflection of a girl (Emma Ridley) looking at her. The doctor and his nurse (Jean Marsh) prepare Dorothy to stay overnight for treatment. Dorothy is strapped onto a gurney for treatment, but she’s frightened by the device placed on her head. Before the Doctor can turn it on, the power to the hospital is knocked out by a storm. The Nurse goes to check on a screaming patient while the Doctor tries to repair the power, leaving Dorothy alone so the mysterious girl can unstrap her and let her free. Rushing outside, the girls are separated by a flash flood, and Dorothy clings to a floating chicken coop to ride out the storm.

In the morning, Dorothy finds that her hen Billina is in the coop with her, she begins speaking (voice of Denise Bryer). The coop has washed up on the edge of a desert, with lush, green land nearby. Dorothy realizes they must be in Oz, which means the sands beneath them are those of the Deadly Desert, which transforms any living creature that touches it to sand. Dorothy carries Billina to safety, leaping from one stone to another until she reaches the grass, unaware that some of those stones are watching her. The creature watching from the rocks rushes off to inform his king that she has returned to Oz, and has a chicken with her.

Dorothy and Billina find the old farmhouse where it crashed in Munchkinland, but realize the Munchkin City is gone, and the Munchkins with it. The Yellow Brick Road has been reduced to rubble, and she races along it until she comes to the destroyed remains of the Emerald City. The people have been turned to stone, including the Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion. They are attacked by creatures with wheels for hands and feet, who chase them into a hidden chamber. The lead Wheeler (Pans Maar) tells them they’ll destroy them, for the Nome King doesn’t allow chickens in Oz. Turning around, Dorothy finds a clockwork man with a plate that proclaims him “The Royal Army of Oz.” Winding him up with the key she found in Kansas, he activates and introduces himself at Tik-Tok (Sean Barrett). Upon the orders of the Scarecrow, he was locked in the chamber to wait for Dorothy’s return after the people began to turn to stone. Tik-Tok defeats the Wheelers and interrogates the leader, who tells them the Nome King is responsible for Oz’s devastation, and that only Princess Mombi can tell them where the Scarecrow is. In Mombi’s palace, they find a beautiful woman with a room full of interchangeable heads. She imprisons Dorothy in the attic, planning to come back for her when her own head is a bit older.

In the attic, Dorothy finds a pumpkin-headed man named Jack (Brian Henson), who tells her he was built by Mombi’s former servant to scare the witch. Instead of destroying him, Mombi tested a “Powder of Life” on him, then locked up the remaining powder with her original head. Jack believes his “mother” was enchanted by Mombi and hidden away. Dorothy and Jack sneaks out to steal the powder, but Mombi is alerted when her original head (Jean Marsh again) wakes up and shouts for help. The others have constructed a flying contraption from couches, leaves, and the mounted head of a Gump (Lyle Conway), which they bring to life with the powder and escape. They fly until the Gump comes apart and crashes on the mountain of the Nome King (Williamson), where the Scarecrow (Justin Case) is imprisoned.

The Nome King (happy that Billina has seemingly disappeared, although she is merely resting inside Jack’s hollow head) has transformed the Scarecrow into an amusing ornament for his vast collection, and claims his conquest of Oz was simply taking back what belonged to him – the gems from the Emerald City were all mined from his underground kingdom, after all. As she weeps for her missing friend, the Nome King seems genuinely touched by her tears, and offers her an opportunity to win him back – if she or her friends can guess which ornament he is, he will be set free. The Gump goes first, but fails in his effort and is transformed into an ornament himself – a condition of the contest the Nome King failed to mention before. Jack goes next, then Tik-Tok, and each are transformed. The Nome King offers to send Dorothy back home using the Ruby Slippers, which he found after she lost them, but she insists on trying to save her friends. She manages to rescue the Scarecrow, who was turned into an emerald, and realizes the people from Oz are all green ornaments. They quickly rescue the Gump, and the Nome King grows angry, sending an earthquake through the mountain. They find and transform Jack as the Nome King attacks them, enraged, tired of the games. He grabs Jack, lifting him to his mouth, but he’s stopped by a sudden clucking sound. Inside Jack’s head, Billina lays an egg, which rolls into the Nome King’s mouth. As he shrieks, he begins to crumble away, revealing that eggs are poison to Nomes. The mountain collapses, and Dorothy takes the Ruby Slippers from the Nome King’s body, using the magic to bring them back to the Emerald City, bring the people back to life, and return Oz to its former glory. With them is a green medal that was somehow stuck to the Gump. Dorothy guesses the truth, and transforms the medal back into the missing Tik-Tok.

The people of Oz ask Dorothy to stay and be their queen, but she wishes to return to Kansas. As she debates what to do, the women whose heads Mombi took tell the truth about her serving-girl: she is Ozma, queen and rightful ruler of Oz. (Also Jack’s “mother” and the girl who helped Dorothy escape the hospital), lost after the Wizard came. Freed from Mombi’s magic, Ozma is restored to the throne and promises to send Dorothy home, on the condition that she signal her should she ever wish to return to Oz again.

Thoughts: This film is an old favorite of mine, probably my first experience with Oz beyond the MGM Musical. It may, in fact, be what first stirred me on to read the further Oz books, when I heard it was essentially a combination of the second and third novels in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Return to Oz. (Honestly, I don’t remember if I read the books before I saw the movie or vice-versa. I would have been 8 years old when this movie was released, and certainly old enough to have discovered the Oz shelf at the St. Charles Parish Public Library where I would be utterly lost for the next few years – a sojourn for which I am eternally grateful.) The writers took the characters and plots of both books and blended them together in a very satisfying way, creating a story that evokes parts of each of them, but manages to feel complete in and of itself. I won’t go into what parts came from which book (read them yourself – they’re in the public domain and free on the internet), but I can say that if I hadn’t read them myself, I wouldn’t have guessed the movie is a mash-up.

Fairuza Balk is the most age-appropriate Dorothy we’ve had yet (she was 11 at the time the film was released), and puts out a decent performance. She’s a young actor, obviously still learning, and you frequently hear the stilted delivery of a child actor trying to remember her lines. But there’s a nice bit of emotion and determination in her voice, even during those abrupt and unnecessary pauses. She feels like a Dorothy who’s already been through a lot and has to reconcile the world she experienced with the ordinary one in which she was raised. It’s a nuanced idea, one that Baum never dealt with much in the books (except perhaps in The Emerald City of Oz), and rather daring for Disney to attempt in the 80s.

Except for Dorothy and Mombi, most of the cast is realized through the use of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, doing a job that these days would probably be mostly CGI. I find the practical puppetry of Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead far more impressive than most computer animated creations, however, and they add a sense of realism to this fantastic setting. The character designs also skew very close to the illustrations in the original Oz books  — even the three characters from the original Wizard of Oz are made up to look like their book versions rather than Jack Haley, Ray Bolger or Bert Lahr. Of all the versions of Oz I’ve looked at this week, this is the one that feels most like the fantasy epic it is at its heart, and I attribute a lot of that to the designs of the characters and sets used here. There’s also some well-done stop motion animation for the Nomes, which are more like living rocks here than the dumpy creatures of the novel. The animation, done by Claymation creator Will Vinton, looks very impressive, and I can try to reconcile the changes to the characters with an attempt to make them more menacing – although the Nome King in Baum’s novels is one of the few truly credible threats to the power of Ozma and Glinda, his appearance is by no means something that will inspire fright.

Return to Oz was thought of by many people as an attempt to do a sequel to the Judy Garland movie, but this film has only a few nods to the MGM musical – the use of Ruby Slippers being the most obvious. The sequence in Kansas at the beginning, like in the MGM movie, introduces actors that would reoccur in Oz and elements that would reflect back on Dorothy’s second adventure (the pumpkin, the lunchpail, and the mechanical man most obviously). Fortunately, the end of the movie makes it pretty clear this time, it’s not just a dream, which Baum never intended in the first place.

As far as deviating from Baum’s intentions, the villains are farther off than anything else. Mombi has little in common with her counterpart from the books, borrowing her most distinctive aspects from Langwidere, the head-swappin’ princess from Ozma of Oz. The Nome King himself, though, is the biggest departure, showing a sense of compassion that doesn’t bespeak the character from the book at all, although the temper he displays at the end feels appropriate. His appearance is also very different from the pudgy, deceptively silly character he is in the books. In this version, he begins as a creature made of solid rock, and slowly becomes more human with each person added to his collection of ornaments. Once Dorothy starts setting her friends free he grows more and more inhuman again, finally crumbling to skeletal rock after Billina’s egg poisons him. It’s an interesting idea that would probably work with some villains, but doesn’t really fit the Nome King of L. Frank Baum’s novels all that well.

Despite that, this movie feels more like Baum’s Oz than any Oz movie I’ve ever seen – not perfect, mind you (the Emerald City’s sudden proximity to the very edge of Oz still strikes me as being somewhat ridiculous in the context of any version of the first story), but closer than anything else. We’ve still yet to have a truly faithful big-screen adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, let alone the rest of the books in the series, but if we ever get them, the look and flavor of this movie wouldn’t be a bad template to use at all.

Now I know I promised you five films for each week of this project, but I feel a little bad, as the most recent significant version of Dorothy Gale I can find in cinema is nearly 30 years old. Hollywood really needs to pick up the pace. But in order to have something a little more recent, just for perspective, come back tomorrow for a Dorothy Gale Week bonus! This time we’re going to the small screen to see how Zooey Deschanel depicted Dorothy Gale (or “D.G.”) in the 2007 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Tin Man.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Advertisements

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 20: Carrie (1976)

carrieDirector: Brian DePalma

Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Piper Laurie

Plot: Slow-to-develop Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a high school senior, the frequent scapegoat of her classmates due to her sheltered life and the oppressive nature of her mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s troubles are compounded on the day she gets her first menstrual cycle, without any idea what it means. The other girls torment her mercilessly, and Carrie is sent home. But along with the changes to her body, something is happening to Carrie’s mind as well. In moments of stress or anger, she finds herself moving objects without touching them. When her mother learns about the incident, she tells Carrie the “curse of blood” is punishment for sin and locks her in the closet to pray. The girls who mocked Carrie are given a harsh detention with the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty about tormenting the girl, and convinces her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask her to the prom. The ringleader, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), wants to get back at Carrie for her trouble, and convinces her high school dropout boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to help her get a brutal revenge. Carrie agrees to go with Tommy, but her mother forbids it. Carrie lashes out wither powers, declaring that she’s going to go and sending her mother into fits of prayer. Billy and Chris, meanwhile, set up a bucket of pig’s blood above the stage of the gym, waiting for Carrie’s big moment. At the prom, Carrie unexpectedly finds a measure of acceptance from her classmates, who treat her as just any other girl – something Carrie has wanted all her life. Her joy is shattered when Chris springs her trap: she’s rigged the prom election so Carrie will win, and just as she comes up to the stage, the pig’s blood spills on her. Tommy is knocked unconscious when the bucket itself falls and strikes him in the head, and the audience erupts in laughter.

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you probably recognize this as the point where the students made a particularly stupid mistake.

The already-fragile Carrie snaps, locking the doors to the gym and setting it on fire, trapping everybody inside. When she leaves the burning gym, Billy and Chris try to run her over, but Carrie simply flips the car and causes it to explode. Returning home, Carrie cries to her mother, who now believes her daughter to be the product of the devil. Margaret White stabs Carrie, and Carrie uses her powers to hurl dozens of blades at her mother, killing her. Finally, Carrie destroys her mother’s house and kills herself in the process. The film ends with an image of Carrie crawling from her own grave, but it’s only a bad dream for survivor Sue Snell, whom one suspects will never have a good dream again.

Thoughts: I became a fan of Stephen King in high school, probably when I was about the age of Carrie White in the film, but I didn’t get around to reading his early works until many years later. In fact, by the time I actually read Carrie or saw the movie, I was already a high school teacher myself, so I think I have something of an odd perspective on the story. King was ahead of the curve when it came to depicting the victims of high school bullying becoming monsters in their own right (he explored a similar theme, sans the supernatural element, in his novel Rage), and these days when I see a kid in the sort of dire straits Carrie finds herself in, I feel particularly strong about trying to help them before it goes bad. Sometimes, though, you just can’t do anything.

It’s hard to see Carrie White as a monster, though. She lashes out, and she causes an incredible amount of death and destruction, but it’s hard to say that anyone else wouldn’t have reacted the same way in her situation. Her overbearing mother is a chilling creature, and would drive anyone mad.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie make the film, Laurie being cruel and sadistic, Spacek being a broken, shattered creature even when we first meet her, which makes those moments when Chris snatches away her brief moment of happiness all the more tragic. In fact, if Carrie’s rampage had ended with the deaths of her tormenters instead of spreading out to the rest of the school, the audience likely would sympathize with her entirely. The deaths would be understandable, if not entirely justified. But at that point, she can’t control herself. She gets her tormentors, but she also gets Tommy and Miss Collins, the two people who have never been unkind to her at all (even Sue, the lone survivor of the massacre, joined in on the initial mocking of Carrie at the beginning of the film). Sometimes you’ll see that the one person who treats the “monster” well is spared its wrath. Not so, in the case of Carrie White. By then, Spacek’s face grows hard and her eyes empty, as if she’s no longer even in control, just an uncontrollable force of nature being used to guide the chaos all around her to its horrific end.

Even then, though, she’s never as horrible as Piper Laurie in her final moments, walking towards her daughter with a bloody knife in the air, smiling with the confidence that she’s doing God’s work. The last moment of horror comes when Carrie slays her, pinning her up in a sort of grotesque crucifix that mirrors the unsettling one her mother forced her to pray under in the closet.

The story itself is actually very simple – I’m pretty sure this is the shortest plot synopsis I’ve written in weeks – but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Sometimes it’s those simple beats that hit close to home. We see the archetypes here – Carrie as the victim-turned-killer, her mother as the iron fist that squeezes until her child pops, Chris as the cruel one, Sue as the guilty party that tries to make good. We recognize all of the characters, and that helps us get into the story easily. There isn’t much of a backstory behind Carrie’s powers, but again, one isn’t really needed. She’s telekinetic, and at this particular time in the 70s that was something that was making the rounds of speculative fiction.

The film draws from interesting sources to create its mood. The musical sting we hear whenever Carrie uses her powers is inarguably reminiscent of the legendary shower scene from Psycho, for example. It’s Carrie lashing out, but the music brings Norman Bates to mind. Otherwise, the music is fairly unremarkable – perhaps even a little too soft and lyrical most of the time. It’s there to disarm you, of course, to prevent you from being prepared for the incoming horror, but it doesn’t really succeed.

The odd moments in the movie are when Brian DePalma works in a few moments of comedy, particularly as Tommy and his friends try on tuxedoes. For some reason that still doesn’t make any sense to me, he goes into fast-forward just for a few seconds, speeding up the conversation so the boys sound like the Chipmunks. It’s a bizarre moment that doesn’t fit at all with the atmosphere of the rest of the film. DePalma also works really hard to artificially draw out the tension. From the time Carrie steps on stage until the blood falls on her head we’ve got a long, protracted scene of Sue discovering the prank and trying to warn Miss Collins, all stretched out due to slow-motion and made a little more horrible by the lack of audio. He goes into split-screen at this point, alternately showing Carrie herself or various points in the gym as she begins to trap her victims. Strangely, the split screen works very well, allowing you to see more of the terror and give it a sort of real-time element. I’m reminded of the TV show 24 whenever it breaks this way, although whether the producers of that show were specifically influenced by Carrie, who can say?

The measure of any movie is really the way it’s remembered, of course. Carrie is still considered a landmark horror film, with echoes in every story of high school terror that came afterwards, everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street right down to The Faculty. Horribly, you can see the reactions in the real world as well, any time some high school outcast snaps under the pressure and turns on his classmates. How many times have you seen a story like that on television or in the newspaper that compares a real-world killer to Carrie White? Carrie should have been a simple little horror story. Instead, it became part warning, part social commentary, part prophecy. I liked it better when it was just a horror story.

We’ve spent most of our time on this project in America, mainly because I don’t really know the history of foreign horror enough to speculate on it. But there are a few foreign films with a large enough footprint to make it on to my radar. Tomorrow, we go to Italy, for Susperia.