Return To Oz is not a film that’s held in very high regard at all but after watching it I have to say I’m a huge fan and that, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, it’s far closer to the source material than The Wizard Of Oz ever was. Here’s the thing: L. Frank Baum wrote an entire opus of Oz novels, fourteen to be exact. They were incredibly strange, terminally bizarre otherworldly fables with borderline dream/nightmare logic and a nebulous ecosystem of odd, surreal nonsensicality that was a world you could get lost in. While Wizard Of Oz is a lovely film with its classic musical numbers, doe eyed, iconoclastic turn from Judy Garland and turned darker, more menacing aspects into more accessible sensibilities, I’ve got to be honest as a childhood fan of the books and say I prefer Return because it feels more akin to Baum’s vernacular, intangible aesthetic and topsy-turvy world building. Additionally, Dorothy in the books was supposed to be between the ages eight to twelve and while seventeen year old Garland was wonderful in the role, Fairuza Balk at age ten fits the character more congruently and she’s terrific in a debut role that’s a perfect precursor to her own career full of edgy, intense and very ‘Oz-esque’ acting creations of her own. Dorothy returns to Oz in far less of a spectacle than the tornado before, and finds it conquered and ruled over by a tyrant called the Gnome King (Nicol Williamson). Dorothy must battle his minions as well as an evil witch named Thrombi (Jean Marsh, also effective as the evil witch in Willow). She’s helped by a new host of fantastical beings including clockwork robot Tik Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, a talking chicken, a sentient Moose head and others while her old friends the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man remain largely in captivity but make some comforting cameos later on in the film. This is one of those blessed 80’s children’s fantasy films that isn’t afraid to get dark, genuinely menacing and has an overall edge and bite to its narrative and tone, which the books had as well. The special effects are utterly spellbinding from shifting rock faces, a flying couch, the gnome king’s fearsomely gigantic final form and all manner of phantasmagorical eye candy. Balk is wonderful as Dorothy and even at an early age it’s easy to see why she went on to become such an accomplished actress and beloved cult film star. As someone who cherished the books as a kid I have to say this is as close as it’s ever come; Baum’s stories were meant to be illogical, disorienting dark fantasies full of subconscious imagery and dreamlike storytelling, not syrupy Hollywood musicals that took all that edgy atmosphere and filtered it through a golden age, tame prism of sunny optimism. That’s not to say I don’t like Wizard Of Oz, it’s a fine film for what it is and a cherished classic to many, it’s just that if we’re acknowledging and paying tribute to the extensive lore behind it all, Return To Oz it’s where it’s at and I would have loved to see a continuing series with Balk as Dorothy again.
With the impending release of a new Spawn film next year that will be written and directed by original comic book artist Todd McFarlane (!), it’s time to take a look back at the eclectic 1997 version. It’s a mixed bag that’s mostly filled with stuff I love, in particular a real nasty comedic edge brought to the table by John Leguizamo’s profane, obese, horrific hell clown The Violator, who lets face it, kind of steals the show. I read that every actor under the sun was considered for the lead role, from Denzel to Samuel L. Jackson to Tony Todd, but I feel like they really lucked out with martial arts legend Michael Jai White, whose sinewy presence lends itself to the dark character and practically radiates pent up rage. Spawn was once Al Simmons, a government assassin who was royally fucked over by the evil mercenary Wynn (Martin Sheen, trying his darnedest to shake the good ol’ Hollywood boy image) and sent to the fiery pit of hell, only to be resurrected as a half demon antihero with more whacked out powers than Beetlejuice and a serious hankering for revenge. That’s this movie anyways, I’m not sure how faithful it is to the comics. Guided by a pseudo Van Helsing looking mentor dude (Nicol Williamson in his final screen role) and pining for the wife (Teresa Randle) he widowed, he embarks on a bloody odyssey to… well to kill Martin Sheen and anyone who gets in his way doing it. Oh yeah, and Leguizamo’s demon clown follows him around making horrifically dark jokes (“I’ve been around since before you were soup in your momma’s crotch) and chewing more scenery than the actor has in the rest of his collective career, which is some fucking achievement. It’s funny because this film simultaneously contains some of the best and worst special effects of the 90’s; Spawn looks, feels and sounds terrific, with tactility and tangibility that should be admired, swooshing reptilian cape, glowing eyes and all manner of slice n’ dice weaponry. However, when we see him visit the devil in hell, the CGI used to bring old Satan to life look absolutely abysmal, like a Starfox final boss they forgot to completely render. I suppose they didn’t have enough budget to make everything slick, but honestly they should have just cut those scenes completely rather than have that embarrassment parade across the screen. Still, it’s hardly a blight on the movie and if anything is part of its scrappy charm, I’ve just been accused of being too much of a critical Pollyanna lately, so I have to throw in the occasional jab at a film I love just for credibilities sake in this snooty community of cinema we live in. Overall this version of Spawn is a blast of beautiful special effects, horrific imagery, vivid performances and Leguizamo mugging the camera like an aggressive dog. I’ve read that he was in that fat suit for so many takes one time that he actually had to deliberately piss himself, which I’m sure only added to the manic energy he has, like how’s that for method acting. I’m not sure what McFarlane has planned for his new one (Jamie Foxx has landed the lead), but I’d advise him to retain the bite and ferocity this one has, as well as its dark humour, weird dream logic and practical effects vs CGI. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing though, it’s not like he’s the original creator of the whole comics series or anything.
William Peter Blatty’s The Excorcist III is my favourite in the series, and if that leaves some people aghast with disbelief, I’ll still hold my stance. Don’t get me wrong, the first film is a classic of atmospheric dread, the sequel is a psychedelic oddity that’s also very underrated, but there’s something about this one that just sat better with me than any of the others, including the two prequels with Stellen Skarsgard. This one deviates from the pattern as well as lifts the focus from Linda Blair’s character, paving a cool new story for itself and breaking new ground. It’s also got one of the single most terrifying moments I’ve ever seen on film, orchestrated perfectly enough to give a good dose of goosebumps to the strongest of spines. The immortal and always excellent George C. Scott plays Kinderman, a police lieutenant who is on the trail of a bloodthirsty serial murderer nicknamed The Gemini Killer. The killer himself has actually been long deceased, but uncanny similarities in the current crimes have freaked the police right out, and so he follows the clues to a foreboding psychiatric facility. It soon becomes clear that there’s something very mysterious going on, and something very wrong with the patients. Skittish Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson) seems to know what’s going on, but also seems not to, or to be too scared to divulge anything. A terrifying patient named James Venuman (Brad Dourif is so scary you’ll want to hide behind the couch) seems to contain something malevolent inside him, his ravings making eerie sense to the detective. There’s a few surprise cameos from veterans of the franchise, as well as work from Ed Flanders, Nicol Williamson and, believe it or not, an appearance from Fabio, of all people. The atmosphere is so thick you could choke on it, the dread hanging in the air like clammy mist, helped in part by the disturbing choice of location, Dourif’s sheer ghoul act and cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s camera, which lurks along walls and corridors and turns the facility into a haunted house, and our nerves into a jittering mess. Underrated as both a standalone fright flick and as an entry in the Excorcist series. Top notch creepfest.