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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Return From Witch Mountain
It’s tempting to view Return From Witch Mountain as Disney’s first response to the blockbuster success of Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. But that’s not how movies work. When Return From Witch Mountain was shot in April 1977, nobody expected Star Wars to do much of anything and only dedicated ufologists knew what a close encounter was. No, the simple truth is that 1975’s Escape To Witch Mountain earned a sequel entirely on its own merit. The fact that it happened to include a flying saucer was just a happy coincidence.
The original film had been as much a mystery as it had been a sci-fi adventure. Siblings Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards) spent most of the movie trying to unlock the secret of their extraterrestrial powers. Director John Hough brought a light sense of menace to the proceedings, ably assisted by the casting of Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence as the bad guys. With the mystery solved, Hough and producers Ron Miller and Jerome Courtland had to take the story in a different direction. And whatever else you may think of Return From Witch Mountain, you can’t deny it’s not a carbon copy of the original.
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This time, the screenplay was by Malcolm Marmorstein, who had recently written Pete’s Dragon for the studio. Alexander Key had not written a sequel to his original novel but when the movie came out, he did write the novelization based on Marmorstein’s script. I can’t think of too many examples of an author being commissioned to write a book based on a movie sequel to one of their earlier books. It would be like getting Stephen King to write the novelization of Pet Sematary Two.
Marmorstein’s script pulls off a difficult trick by simultaneously being extremely straightforward and all over the map. In the original film, Tia and Tony’s abilities had been relatively limited and clearly delineated. Marmorstein apparently felt hamstrung by that. In his version, the kids can do pretty much whatever they want. There are some good ideas in the film and we’ll get to those. But most of the movie’s problems and even its oddball charm stems from its chaotic script.
Incidentally, there’s another familiar name in the opening credits worth mentioning. The artist formerly known as Moochie, Kevin Corcoran (whose last on-camera appearance had been a brief cameo in 1970’s The Boatniks), had grown up, gone to college, and returned to Disney to work behind the camera. Return To Witch Mountain was his first credit as associate producer. His name will continue to pop up in Disney movies throughout the 1970s.
Everyone involved with Witch Mountain seemed aware that one of the strengths of the original film had been the seriousness of the villains. The sequel ups the ante considerably by casting Bette Davis and Christopher freakin’ Lee as the bad guys. Not to take anything away from Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence, both wonderful actors in their own right. But if you’re looking to menace a bunch of kids, you can’t get much better than the star of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and Dracula himself. Ms. Davis will be back in this column before too long. So will Christopher Lee, in a way, but not for a very long time.
Escape To Witch Mountain ended with Tony and Tia happily reunited with Uncle Bené (Denver Pyle) and their community of alien refugees on Witch Mountain. You might think the sequel would focus on that community, perhaps introduce some more extraterrestrials, or have Aristotle Bolt threaten to expose their existence to the world. Nope, nope and double nope! Instead, the movie opens with Uncle Bené dropping the kids off at the Rose Bowl for a week’s vacation in sunny Los Angeles. I guess even super-powered teenagers need a little R&R.
Uncle Bené hands the kids over to a waiting cab driver (Dick Bakalyan, for once not playing a mobster), instructs him to drive the kids to their hotel and immediately takes a powder. Supposedly the cabbie will get paid when they get there, so I guess there’s someone waiting for them? Look, I know Bené is only their uncle but it seems a little negligent to just turn a couple kids loose in L.A. without supervision for a week.
The thing is, we never find out who, if anyone, is expecting them at the hotel. Before they make it to Disneyland or wherever it is they’re going, the cab runs out of gas. While the driver trudges to the nearest gas station, Tony gets a psychic flash of someone falling off a nearby roof. He goes to investigate and finds Dr. Victor Gannon (Lee) and his formerly wealthy benefactor, Letha Wedge (Davis). Gannon is experimenting with a mind control device he’s invented by sending Letha’s nephew, Sickle (Anthony James), up a fire escape to the roof of a warehouse. Unfortunately, Letha broke the control box and Gannon is unable to get Sickle to stop.
Tony arrives just in time to telekinetically prevent Sickle from splattering all over the sidewalk. Gannon and Letha can’t believe their eyes. Realizing that Tony has telekinetic abilities, Gannon jabs him with a hypodermic needle he apparently carries with him all the time, rendering the boy unconscious. They bundle Tony and the still-entranced Sickle into the car and head back to their secret lair.
Meanwhile, Tia has grown concerned and gone looking for her brother. She doesn’t find him but she does run into four ragamuffins being chased by a bunch of goons (perhaps Jodie Foster’s old crew from Candleshoe?). Tia uses her own powers to subdue the slightly older kids and escapes with the boys she just rescued. These are the members of the Earthquake Gang, a bunch of wannabe delinquents who run around looking for trouble and avoiding the truant officer, Mr. Yokomoto or, as the kids call him, “Yo-Yo” (played by Jack Soo from TV’s Barney Miller in what would turn out to be his last film before his death in 1979).
Earthquake Gang roll call!
Crusher! He wears glasses! That’s Poindexter Yothers, brother of Family Ties’ Tina Yothers, credited as simply “Poindexter”, like Madonna or Prince.
Rocky! He’s Black! He’s played by Jeffrey Jacquet, who went on to appear on the first season of Mork & Mindy.
And Dazzler! He…likes show tunes, maybe? I don’t know, I’m just disappointed it’s not the disco-themed Marvel superhero. Anyway, that’s Christian Juttner, who had appeared in a few Disney TV projects including The Million Dollar Dixie Deliverance.
So, to thank Tia for saving their hides, the Earthquake Gang agrees to help her find Tony. And since apparently Uncle Bené didn’t bother to tell anyone except the cab driver what hotel they were staying at, they also let her crash at their headquarters, a big abandoned house smack-dab in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
Even with their psychic connection, finding Tony is not going to be easy. Dr. Gannon has the boy strapped down in his basement laboratory with one of his patented radio-control brain-scrambling doo-dads behind his ear. He’s got big plans for the boy but Letha just wants money and lots of it. And when she sees in the paper that millions of dollars in gold bars are on display at the museum, she knows just how to get some.
By the way, Letha’s very cool, castle-like house is a real L.A. mansion called the Wolf’s Lair Castle, named after architect L. Milton Wolf. Years later, musician and possible Witch Mountain superfan Moby bought the house and had it fully restored. He later sold the place himself, which seems crazy to me but I’m sure he made a nice little profit on it.
At any rate, while Gannon runs out to Radio Shack to get some new transistors, Letha and Sickle take Tony to the museum. The gold bars are part of an old west exhibit for some reason and Letha commands Tony to create a diversion by setting the stagecoach in motion and animating the mannequins. Tia gets a psychic flash of Tony’s location and fortunately, the Earthquake Gang is up on all the current museum exhibits, so they’re able to figure out where he is.
By the time they get there, the museum has erupted into chaos. Tony has also used his abilities to essentially melt a hole into the plexiglass shield surrounding the gold and send the bars out to Sickle. He was not, however, particularly precise in those commands. The gold has come hurtling out the door faster than Sickle can handle it, destroying the car in the process. Tia manages to counteract Tony’s mischief but Gannon shows up to whisk Letha, Sickle and Tony away before she can contact him. And yes, you’d think the police would be able to track Letha down quickly and easily, seeing as how her abandoned car is sitting right out front, buried under a mountain of gold bricks.
Tia and the Earthquake Gang spot Yo-Yo and chase after the bad guys. Tony manages to give them the slip by creating a blinding reflection off their car’s rear windscreen (I guess now he’s able to telekinetically control the sun). Yo-Yo’s Board of Education minivan is totaled but fortuitously, nobody is injured.
The sudden appearance of Tia could potentially complicate things for Gannon, so he has Tony telepathically contact his sister and lead her straight to their hideout. Once she arrives, Gannon puts her into a semi-comatose state to keep her out of his hair. With that taken care of, they head to a processing plant operated by the imaginatively named Plutonium Industries. Gannon’s scheme is for Tony to take control of the central cooling unit and cause a nuclear meltdown unless the company forks over $5 million and informs the world that Dr. Victor Gannon is the most powerful so-and-so on planet Earth.
Back at the mansion, Tia commands Gannon’s lab goat, Alfred, to trek across the city and summon the Earthquake Gang. Oh, I’m sorry. Did I neglect to mention that Gannon had a goat? Well, he does. Alfred makes his way to the Earthquake Gang’s hideout, with the unwitting assistance of Eddie, the cab driver from the beginning of the movie. Recognizing Tia’s vest, the gang follows Alfred back to rescue her.
While they try to figure out their next move, the kids run into Yo-Yo, who’s been fired for destroying city property. A radio broadcast informs them about the crisis at Plutonium Industries and Tia realizes it must be Tony’s handiwork. She uses her powers to restore Yo-Yo’s van to a drivable condition and they race off to the plant.
Once there, the kids easily make their way past the evacuating employees and the world’s most chill security guard, still right where Tony left him, levitating in midair. While the Earthquake Gang distracts Letha and Sickle, Tia confronts the mind-controlled Tony. Once she gets the cooling system back online, she realizes Gannon is manipulating her brother and destroys the control gizmo. Tony snaps out of it, which is interesting since when the exact same thing happened to Sickle earlier in the movie, he stayed in a zombie-like trance until they got him back to the lab. Chalk it up to Tony’s extraterrestrial constitution, I guess.
At any rate, with Tony back to his old self, the kids have no trouble handling the bad guys, trapping them on a shaky platform high up in the rafters. Yo-Yo gives the kids a lift back to the Rose Bowl, where Uncle Bené has apparently just been hanging out this whole time. They say their goodbyes to the Earthquake Gang, beam aboard their flying saucer and head back to home sweet Witch Mountain.
The idea to produce a sequel to Escape To Witch Mountain makes a lot of sense. The original film tells a complete story but its resolution opens the door to all sorts of possibilities. That said, not once did I think that one of those possibilities was to stick a bunch of proto-Goonies into a rejected plot from a James Bond knockoff. So kudos for keeping me on my toes, I guess.
Like I said, there are elements in Return From Witch Mountain that work, such as the idea of turning Tony and Tia against each other. I’d argue that it would have worked even better if Hough and Marmorstein could have been bothered to take it even remotely seriously. As it is, we get floating security guards, goats in taxi cabs, a wacky heist-gone-wrong, and a pint-size street gang. I suppose we should be grateful that Bette Davis and Christopher Lee weren’t forced to participate in a pie fight.
Return From Witch Mountain hit theatres March 10, 1978. Reviews were fair, which is a little surprising but also not. Even when the movie is operating at peak ridiculousness, it’s never boring. It might not make a lot, or indeed any, sense but it coasts along on the not inconsiderable fun of watching Davis and Lee do their thing.
The movie didn’t do quite as much business as its predecessor but it did well enough for Disney to return to Witch Mountain again. In 1982, Disney brought back Eddie Albert for the made-for-TV Beyond Witch Mountain. It basically ignored Return, recasting Tia and Tony with younger kids. This was intended as a pilot for a Witch Mountain TV series that never materialized.
In the mid-90s, Disney remade a lot of their live-action movies for TV and Escape To Witch Mountain was not immune. That version made a whole lot of changes to the original, including the characters’ names. Tony and Tia became Danny and Anna, played by 90s Disney star Erik von Detten and future Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss. The cast also included Robert Vaughn, Vincent Schiavelli, Henry Gibson and Brad Dourif, all of which is just weird enough that I kind of want to check this thing out.
This will be our last visit to Witch Mountain for the foreseeable future, although we will be racing back to it eventually. It’ll also be the last appearances of Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann. They made one more non-Disney movie together, the awesomely named Devil Dog: The Hound Of Hell, once again cast as brother and sister.
Richards kept acting, mostly in television, into the 1980s. She later found a very different kind of fame as one of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills. She’s also had some public run-ins with the law and struggled with substance abuse but she seems to be doing OK these days. Ike Eisenmann’s highest-profile post-Disney role was as Peter Preston, Scotty’s nephew, in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. These days, he does a lot of post-production voice acting.
In 2002, Eisenmann wrote and directed The Blair Witch Mountain Project. The 12-minute mockumentary short reunited Ike and Kim as Tony and Tia and brought back several actors from the original films, including Brad Savage, Christian Juttner, Dick Bakalyan and Dermott Downs (Truck from Escape). It’s kind of cute. I suppose the idea of combining Witch Mountain and The Blair Witch Project was inevitable, so I’m glad Eisenmann got there first.
The two Witch Mountain films were some of my favorite live-action Disney movies when I was a kid. Revisiting Escape To Witch Mountain, I was pleased to see it mostly held up. Return From Witch Mountain doesn’t, not really. And yet, I still had a good time rewatching it all these years later. It’s one of the studio’s few films that can legitimately be described as psychotronic. That affection for movies with a high level of gonzo weirdness would only get deeper as I got older.
VERDICT: I can’t in good conscience describe this as a good movie but anything this bonkers has to be a Disney Plus.
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