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WTF Moments: Return to Oz's closet full of severed heads

By Meagan Navarro
Return to Oz

Dorothy Gale's second cinematic trip to the magical land of Oz was far darker and bleaker than her first. It also managed to be far more bizarre and scarier than anything Dorothy encountered in the classic 1939 MGM film.

An unofficial sequel produced by Disney, released in 1985, Return to Oz pulled from the second and third books in L. Frank Baum's Oz series, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. They got real dark — think a kitchen sink full of nightmarish foes, characters, and quests Dorothy must contend with if she hopes to return to Kansas, which makes for a number of WTF Moment candidates.

Now played by a young Fairuza Balk, Dorothy isn't quite able to adjust back to life in Kansas. Set six months after the events of the first film, Dorothy suffers insomnia. This in conjunction with her constant babble about yellow brick roads, wicked witches, and wizards has her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) doubly worried. They decide the best course of action is to turn her over to Dr. J.B. Worley (Nicol Williamson) and his mean nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) for some experimental electrotherapy. Just as Dorothy's strapped to a table and on the cusp of having her brain scrambled by Worley's electrical device, a storm knocks out the power and a mysterious girl frees Dorothy.

From there, a flooded river soon carries Dorothy back to Oz, but it's far from how she left it. The Emerald City is in ruins, and its citizens turned to stone, including her friends Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, though the Scarecrow is nowhere to be found. She doesn't even have her trusty pup Toto; a sassy hen named Billina takes his place instead. In Dorothy's search for Scarecrow, she winds up forging new friendships — this time in the most harrowing of places.

Among them is Tik-Tok, a wind-up soldier who pushes her toward a new direction in her journey, but not before encountering the Wheelers, super creepy henchmen with high pitched, manic laughter and wheels for hands and feet. Wheelers outrank Flying Monkeys any day on the fear meter and could count as a WTF Moment on their own. As could the overall central villain Nome King (also played by Williamson), a subterranean ruler comprised of rock and mountain.

Yet, the prize winner for most WTF Moment of all belongs to secondary villain Princess Mombi, a witch with an affinity for collecting heads. When we first meet her, she's a young woman serenely playing the lyre within the Emerald City castle. But Princess Mombi decides that's too casual of a façade and takes Dorothy with her to her sprawling closet to change into something more befitting of the occasion.

Her closet isn't filled with ornate dresses, though, but a stretching corridor crammed full of display cases of many bodiless heads. They all turn their gaze on Dorothy when she enters the room with Mombi, and it's jarring. Mombi gives the viewer a momentary reprieve by opting to lock Dorothy away in a room where she meets her next ally, Jack Pumpkinhead.

Jack is a gangly scarecrow type with a jack o' lantern head; an inanimate being brought to life by the very thing Mombi uses to create her massive head collection — the Powder of Life. The WTF Moment is finally here in full. Realizing it's her ticket out of there, Dorothy steals the key to the cupboard in which the Powder of Life is kept from a now headless, sleeping Mombi, and sneaks into her closet. All of the many heads are fast asleep. The moment Dorothy unlocks the cabinet at the end to retrieve the Powder, she's startled to find Mombi's original head hidden inside. The head wakes up, alerting the other heads with her guttural yelling, which in turn wakes Mombi's body. And cue the headless body chasing after Dorothy. WTF.

The land of Oz is a surreal place to be sure, but this scene traumatized a generation. A witch with an interchangeable head collection is all fun and games until the lead heroine is forced to sneak past said heads and outrun a headless villain. A villain that declared up front that she wanted Dorothy's head for her own. By comparison, the Nome King just wants to be human. Sure, it's at the expense of everyone in the Emerald City, but he doesn't quite manage to feel as dangerous as his cohort Princess Mombi thanks to this terrifying scene. I should also add a reminder that this is a movie aimed at children. Children! Not even most horror movies aimed toward adults manage to be as scary.

When you think of the stories of Oz, its meek heroine Dorothy Gale, and Disney, you think kid-friendly fantasy with saccharine messages of family and friendship. Return to Oz ultimately achieves its happy ending, but first you have to contend with an unfamiliar take on Oz, a bleak opener that threatens to submit its heroine to electrotherapy, ominous foes, and one key WTF Moment to end all WTF Moments.