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REVIEW: Return From Witch Mountain

Written by Mark Russell

Three years ago, Disney released a magical, charming but at times chilling movie called Escape to Witch Mountain, a sign that the company was clawing its way out of the chasm of despair following the death of Walt Disney back in ’66. Now, here in 1978, a sequel has been released: Return From Witch Mountain. You know the weird thing about the first film was that we never actually saw Witch Mountain beyond a mention, and the sequel doesn’t feature it either. But that’s not all that Return From Witch Mountain seems to be lacking. By no means is it a bad film, it just lacks the magic and excitement seen in its predecessor.

To review this film properly requires a little background. The films are based on the novel by Alexander Kay, while taking some liberties. To wit, Tony and Tia Malone (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) are a pair of amnesiac twins who possess psychic powers like telepathy, Tony can use telekinesis by playing a harmonica, and Tia can speak with animals. Wanting to discover their origins, the twins follow a secret map in Tia’s “star case” whilst pursued by sinister businessmen. They team up with a widowed motorhome owner Tim O’Day (Eddie Albert) and discover they are in fact aliens. The film ended with the twins reuniting with their uncle and departing in a spaceship. Pretty amazing stuff. The film had some great special effects to show off the twins’ psychic powers, some freaky harmonica music, and a flying RV made it a nifty, enchanting film.

For the sequel, things take a more earthly, urban adventure when Tony and Tia are dropped off in Los Angeles by their uncle to tour the place. And when I say dropped off, I mean landing a spaceship in the middle of a football stadium and lowering the actors down to the ground using special effects you’d see on a kid’s show airing on BBC. Thankfully, the film’s saving grace and drivers of the plot come along in the form of Christopher Lee and Bette Davis playing the evil Dr. Gannon and opportunistic associate Letha Wedge. Dr. Gannon has invented a mind controlling device, which he tests out on Letha’s oddly-named nephew Sickle. Sickle climbs up a rooftop but Letha breaks Gannon’s device, causing Sickle to walk right off the roof. Tony saves him with his powers, and Gannon shows his gratitude by drugging Tony, taking him prisoner, and brainwashing him.

Tia tries to find her wayward brother but gets involved with a group of youngsters called the Earthquake Gang, who want to prove there are a force to be reckoned with whilst evading a truancy officer named Mr. Yo-Yo (Jack Soo). While Letha wants to simply make money with Tony, Gannon has higher ambitions, intending to become the most powerful, respected man in science, though power corrupts, and eventually he just wants to be unstoppable. It is up to Tia and the Earthquake Gang to rescue Tony and stop Dr. Gannon’s evil schemes when he threatens to destroy a nuclear reactor.

The story of the film feels a little stretched at times, with Tia and the gang spending most of the film running from one place in LA’s abandoned districts to another. Dr. Gannon and Letha talk a lot about evil plots but take forever to execute them. Poor Tony just stares into space, unable to emote or possibly even act, though Tia’s actress seems to be suffering from the same problems. These two were great in the first film, but now that they’re teenagers, their acting talent seems to have disappeared and Tony’s actor Ike Eisenmann has a very flat performance throughout the film, and not because the character is brainwashed for most of the movie. The acting of the Earthquake Gang members aren’t very expressive either.

As I said before, the film is missing the fun and magic of Escape to Witch Mountain. It feels more like it was made for television than the big screen, and a smaller budget is plainly obvious with the lack of special effects in the movie. Something tells me Ms. Davis and Mr. Lee got big cheques for their inclusion. The separation of Tony and Tia really makes the film feel empty at times, since the two drove most of the first film, and the absence of a parental figure to support them (having had four in Escape) leaves them floundering around looking helpless and bored. A lot of elements introduced in Escape are absent such as Tia’s star case, Tony using his harmonica, the fun of the powers, the creepy music, etc.

But that doesn’t mean it is a bad film. It still has fun in other places – there is an imaginative, chaotic scene where Letha and Sickle try to steal a pile of gold from a museum using Tony’s powers. Tony makes all of the exhibits come alive, visitors and guards are thrown around or float in the air, and Sickle’s car is trashed when Tony starts tossing the gold at him. It also makes use of the few special effects in the movie. The best moment is when a Native American mannequin leaps onto the back of a runaway stagecoach, and the guard driving it tries to fend the man off by throwing his toupee at him. Another funny moment is when the characters have to break into a nuclear power plant, and force a security guard to float in the air to get past him.

Bette Davis seems to be revelling in her role, and Christopher Lee does a fine job even if his character is a bit thin on the ground. Jack Soo does a good role as Mr. Yo-Yo, a well-intentioned but rather hapless character who just wants to make sure the Earthquake Gang have a future. There’s also a subplot where Dr. Gannon has a pet goat for some reason, which Tia frees, and it ends up leaping into a taxi to reach the Earthquake Gang after Gannon temporarily kidnaps Tia.

So, Return From Witch Mountain isn’t as good or as fun as Escape to Witch Mountain, it still has some good qualities to it, particularly from the supporting cast and the small use of special effects to show off the twins’ powers.

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About the author

Mark Russell