Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Witch Mountain Children's Day Special

Cody and Priscilla celebrate the Brazilian holiday Children's Day with 1978's Return from Witch Mountain.

Priscilla and I have mentioned the fact that she lives in Brazil on several occasions throughout the articles we've written together, and while October 12th isn't anything special here in the United States, it is a holiday in her home country. It's Children's Day, or Dia das Crianças. Since our last article was a Remake Comparison of the 1975 children's film Escape to Witch Mountain and its 1995 TV movie remake, we have decided to stick with the Witch Mountain franchise this month and celebrate Children's Day with a viewing of the original Escape's 1978 sequel.


Walt Disney Productions' cinematic adaptation of Alexander H. Key's novel Escape to Witch Mountain had been a hit in 1975, so the company soon greenlit a sequel, getting Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards to reprise the roles of alien children Tony and Tia and bringing Escape director John Hough back to direct the follow-up.

One member of the lead creative team who didn't return was screenwriter Robert Malcolm Young. Instead of Young, Disney hired veteran Dark Shadows and Peyton Place writer Malcolm Marmorstein, with whom the company had just worked on Pete's Dragon, to pen the script. There was no source material to work with on this one; this was a Marmorstein original.

The titular Return from Witch Mountain happens right up front - the movie begins with a space ship landing on the football field at the Rose Bowl stadium in Los Angeles, where Uncle Bene (Denver Pyle) drops off Tony and Tia so they can take a brief solo vacation in the big city. The family and other members of their alien race have been setting up a community at the Witch Mountain location the kids went to in the first film, and Bene feels that they shouldn't be isolated from the world, they need to see how things work.

The kids look so grown up. Tia's hair is darker now and she's not a little girl anymore.

You have to respect when a movie wastes no time. Uncle Bene drops the kids off in the first scene, the reasons for this vacation are revealed through some chit-chat exposition, and we're off and running.

I appreciate the fact that they get right on it. We get the point, and it doesn't feel rushed. It works.

I do have to question the logic behind this, though. Tony and Tia already spent years among the human population, they know how things work. And whether they're aliens with special powers or not, powers that Bene tells them not to use, you don't send a couple kids out into L.A. alone.

I agree. I've always found it irresponsible for Bene to send the kids to a place like L.A. alone, especially if they're not supposed to use their powers. What do they do if they get in some kind of trouble?

The kids have only been in L.A. for mere minutes, only long enough to take a ride with a wacky taxi driver, before things go terribly wrong. When the taxi runs out of gas on a city street, Tony senses that something bad is going to happen nearby. He envisions someone falling off a building.

That someone is Sickle (Anthony James), the nephew of a formerly wealthy woman named Letha Wedge (Bette Davis), who has gone bankrupt funding the scientific endeavors of the money and power-seeking Dr. Victor Gannon (Christopher Lee). Gannon has invented a machine that allows him to take control of another person as if they've been hypnotized. They will do anything he says, and he's testing his invention by having Sickle, who is afraid of heights, up to the roof of a building.

Ray Milland, Donald Pleasence, and Eddie Albert in the first movie, Christopher Lee and Bette Davis in this one. These Witch Mountain movies have some great casts. If you're looking for a villain, you can't do much better than Lee.

Definitely. And Anthony James is highly creepy as well. I don't think I've ever seen a guy look that scary in a turtle neck.

The invention doesn't work as intended. Sickle is out of control, and ends up walking right off the edge of the building. Luckily for him, Tony is on the scene to catch Sickle with his telekinetic powers before he hits the ground.

If you want a better explanation than simply "telekinesis", the movie provides it: Tony was energizing matter and controlling molecular flow. I think I'll just stick with saying "telekinetic powers".

Or just "powers", period. Less is more sometimes.

Just like Aristotle Bolt and Lucas Deranian, the middle-aged men who wanted to use the children's powers for nefarious purposes in the first movie, Gannon's eyes fill with dollar signs when he watches Tony use his powers to gently lower Sickle to the ground. He needs to know what's going on with this kid, so he injects Tony with a sedative and abducts him.

Searching the streets and alleys for her brother, Tia crosses paths with a group of young boys who call themselves the Earthquake Gang. When the kids first meet, the Earthquake Gang is on the run from a rival gang of youths called the Goon Goons, and Tia gets in good with the Earthquakes by using her powers to get the Goon Goons off their back.

The Earthquakes are some cute little dorks, scaredy cats who sound totally ridiculous when they try to sound tough. It just isn't in their nature. And what boy who wants to be scary is going to choose the nickname "Dazzler" for himself?

So adorable. They're sweet and very funny.

The Earthquake Gang agrees to help Tia find Tony, and in the meantime she can stay in their hideout, a rundown abandoned building. It's where they're going to live when they run away from home, but in the meantime they have to get back home before their moms get upset.

I really like the old house. Has sort of a Psycho vibe to it.

Although they're far apart, Tia does catch some telepathic waves from Tony and is able to see that he's being kept somewhere that looks like a hospital room. That's actually Gannon's laboratory, where Gannon is observing the magnetic field that Tony is projecting. Gannon's plan for Tony is more mind control. He wants to place receptors on certain people, then use Tony's powers to control them, making Gannon "one of the most influential men in the world".

Letha is just hoping they'll make some money from all of this, and she has an idea for how Tony, who has one Gannon's receptors on him and is thus completely under their control, can help her make a score. One thing Tony and Tia had planned when they came to L.A. was to visit museums, and Letha goes behind Gannon's back to take him to a museum - one where an area has been dressed to look like an Old West mining camp, and on display there is a stack of gold worth three million dollars. The plan: Letha will have Tony use his powers to wreak havoc in the museum, to cover up for the fact that he is simultaneously using his powers to float that stack of gold out to Letha's car. When ordered to do that, that's exactly what Tony does.

Since the receptor was put on Tony, Tia has only been able to pick up the occasional telepathic broadcast from him, but when Letha has him using his powers at the museum she picks up the broadcast well enough that it leads her and the Earthquake Gang to the museum. Tia is able to use her powers to counteract Tony's and shut down his shenanigans, but when the two spot each other Tony is too deeply under Letha's spell to go to his sister.

I don't like the approach taken in this movie as far as Tony and Tia goes. Not only is Tony forced to do things that he normally wouldn't, but also he's separated from Tia for most of Return from Witch Mountain, which is not as fun as having the sister/brother duo experience all kinds of adventures together.

The choice to put Tony in the custody of, and under the control of, the villains for most of the film does seem counter-intuitive. 

Letha and Sickle hadn't accounted for the weight of the gold or the speed at which it'd be heading out to the car, so when Letha emerges from the museum that the gold has wrecked the vehicle, it looks like she's in trouble. But then Gannon, who has figured out what Letha is doing with his important project, shows up at the museum to pick them up, setting the stage for a vehicular chase.

The kids in the Earthquake Gang have quit school, since you "can't be tough and educated", and are constantly being hounded by truancy officer "Yo-Yo" Yokomoto (Jack Soo). Yokomoto picks up Tia and the Earthquakes outside the museum and herds them into his van with the intention of hauling them off to a classroom, but Tia takes mental control of the van and uses it to chase Gannon's car through L.A.

As they go, Gannon has Tony put obstacles in the way of Yokomoto's van. A truck, a bus, a trailer, he sends a parked train rolling in front of them. Tia finds a way around all of the obstacles, even levitating the van over the train - a moment reminiscent of the motor home taking flight in the first movie. The chase ends when Tony uses a reflection to blind Tia and Yokomoto, causing the van to crash.

What a great chase! Poor van.

That's a good stretch of action. From the moment that Tony starts causing trouble at the museum to the moment when Yokomoto's wrecked van comes to a stop, it's been about 13 minutes. You sure didn't get action like that in the 1995 remake of Escape.

While Gannon and Letha are arguing about the events of the day -

These two are very repetitive. It's just variations of "I'm going to be powerful" and "I need money" over and over.

The epitome of villainy.

- the pair realize that Tony and Tia have a telepathic connection. So they decide to use that to their advantage and have Tony telepathically lure Tia to their mansion. Once she's there, she is knocked out with chloroform and put in a state of "comatose neutralization".

I have to take a moment to say, the mansion the villains live in is an incredible location, it allows for some stunning shots of characters standing below it. This is the Wolf's Lair castle, positioned high in the Hollywood hills, overlooking the Hollywood sign. Several notable people in the entertainment industry have lived there over the last ninety years, including Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Shelley Duvall, and most recently Moby.

I agree. The mansion is extraordinary.

With Tia out of commission, the villains are able to move forward with their power and money-gaining schemes. They take Tony to a plutonium processing plant, where Gannon plans to carry out an extortion scenario, shutting down the cooling system and demanding $5 million in cash to turn the system back on and stop the place from blowing up.

Problem is, they have to be inside the plant they're threatening to blow up to carry off this scheme, so it's not the greatest plan.

Is it the villains being goofy or the story being a little off?

For some reason, Gannon has a goat named Alfred in his laboratory. Even though she's in a coma, Tia is able to telepathically reach out to Alfred and send him to get the Earthquake Gang. Guided by Tia, this goat makes his way across the city, even catching a ride with the same taxi driver Tony and Tia got a ride from earlier. It takes him a while to realize he has a goat in the back seat, and when he does he thinks the goat is a magician who turned himself into an animal.

I love this part, it's one of my favorites.

Gannon, Tony, Letha, and Sickle raid the plutonium plant, with Tony levitating security guards to get them out of the way. While Gannon is carrying out his extortion scheme, Alfred leads the Earthquake kids back to Tia so they can get her out of that gas-induced coma. The kids then go searching for Tony, and run into Yokomoto instead.

The kids have a bonding moment with the man who has been chasing them, who is now in trouble for the extensive damage caused to city property (his van) under his watch. Yokomoto cares about the kids, he wants to see them get an education, and he only hopes that one day they'll thank him for making them go to school.

I like that the kids befriend Yokomoto after putting him through such a tough time. He's a nice guy who's trying to do a good thing through his job.

While talking to Yokomoto, the kids hear a radio news report about the situation at the plutonium plant. So Tia uses her powers to repair the van enough so Yokomoto can drive them to the plant. By the time they reach the plant, there are less than ten minutes to go before the place is likely to explode. With Tony still firmly under Gannon's control, it's up to Tia and the Earthquake kids to take on the villains and get the plant's cooling system switched back on.

Another favorite scene... Tia repairing the van. Really cool stuff.

Of course, Tony does eventually come to his senses, but only after having a telekinetic battle with Tia wherein she repeatedly has to use her powers to protect herself from deadly objects Tony throws at her.

The fact that we're watching a boy try to kill his sister adds a disturbing edge to this climactic sequence. If you think about it, it's unexpectedly troubling for a movie aimed at kids.

Just like Escape, Return also has some very strong horror/serious moments, this being one of them. It's a kids' movie, but with some extra elements that are enough to make it interesting for adults as well.

With Gannon, Letha, and Sickle no longer a threat, Tony and Tia have Yokomoto take them back to the Rose Bowl, where they fix Yokomoto's van and say goodbye to the gang, who they leave in a much better situation than they were in when Tia met them. After watching Uncle Bene pick Tia and Tony up in a flying saucer to take them back to Witch Mountain, the Earthquake kids might actually go on to get an education after all.

Like Escape to Witch Mountain, Return from Witch Mountain is a movie that eluded me until I watched it for the first time this year, at the age of 32, thanks to Priscilla. While it's not quite on the level of its predecessor, I still found it to be enjoyable. It's a good movie and a solid sequel, although some very odd decisions went into the making of it. As we said, it doesn't make much sense that they made a sequel where Tony and Tia are separated and/or working against each other for most of it. Tony even tries to kill Tia! I'm sure if you told fans of Escape in between the releases of the two movies that the sequel would have Tony attempting to murder his sister, they would have thought you were talking nonsense.

The biggest problem is most definitely having Tony and Tia apart, and having Tony basically act evil. I did not enjoy it much as a kid. I was hoping for some more sibling love and got the opposite instead. I was still glad we got to see the two characters again, but it didn't catch my attention enough as a kid to make me watch it over and over again like I did with Escape.

Even looking past the Tony and Tia element, it's strange that this one is simply about the kids coming across another greedy villain while visiting Los Angeles. It doesn't really add to the story of our heroes, it's just something that happens to them for a couple days. There was a much more obvious sequel set-up within Escape - the fact that there are other members of the alien race who are still lost on Earth like Tony and Tia used to be, aliens that also need to find their way to Witch Mountain - but that isn't mentioned here.

I don't think I would've been happy with a sequel without Tony and Tia at that point. Even though they're older and looking different now, with a little less abundance of charisma, I still like the fact that they're what the movie is about. And honestly, in this case, I wouldn't have minded having more of the same, if the siblings had stayed in unison during Return.

You would definitely need to have Tony and Tia, no matter what the story was. Disney actually tried to make a TV series about them searching for other lost aliens in 1982, but it didn't make it past the pilot. Since so many years had passed, Tony and Tia were recast for that pilot.

Not questioning the choices and just taking the film as it is, Return is fun, and it's nice to see Tony and Tia again a few years after Escape. There's some good action, as they use their powers quite a bit, and the supporting characters are interesting additions to their lives.

Return from Witch Mountain is not as fun as Escape to Witch Mountain, but it's pretty enjoyable. It's more about action, and Tony and Tia's powers, and less about story - which can be a little off at times - but still good. Acting remains terrific in the sequel.

Christopher Lee has an awesome presence and makes for a great villain, as he established well over the course of his career. Most of the Earthquakes didn't act beyond childhood, but they're an adorable bunch of dweebs and it's amusing to watch their interactions as they try to be tough and fail at it.

The Earthquakes are really cute, their presence makes the movie lighter. The villains are fantastic, all of them. And how can you not love Bette Davis? She's so remarkable in everything I see her in.

There's really not all that much to Return from Witch Mountain when you break it down, but it's an entertaining way to spend 95 minutes.

I can't say I like it as much as the original Escape, and I certainly haven't watched it nearly as many times, but it's still a worthy sequel.

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