I originally planned for this list to be all straight horror, but it didn't take much time sorting through the movies that have sincerely messed me up to realize there are only so many R-rated movies that can honestly contend with the warping factor to be found in the kids' section.
If you haven't had the chance to suffer from Return to Oz nightmares, either as a child or an adult, here's how it goes:
After making her wish on the ruby slippers to get home from Oz, Dorothy returns to a tornado-shattered house and a family that thinks, due to her Oz-related ramblings, that she's lost her mind.
She gets sent to an eighteen-nineties mental hospital to be cured of her delusions and nightmares and spends the night tied to a dolly and hooked up to an early electrotherapy machine, during a thunderstorm, until she's rescued by Oz's princess, Ozma.
Ozma and Dorothy are separated, but Dorothy is able to escape from the institute and back to Oz via a flash flood that almost drowns her.
And then we're out of cuckoo's nest territory, and she's back in a fantasy world of magical wonders where everything is better, right?
Dorothy wakes up at the edge of Oz, stranded a few yards into the Deadly Desert, which sounds like some corny alliterative hyperbole, until she explains that anything living that touches this wasteland that surrounds Oz instantly turns to sand.
Of course, Dorothy makes a new friend in that room who helps her get past the Wheelers to embark on an adventure to save all her old friends and put Oz to rights, but the worst is yet to come.
Why it's terrifying:
Other than all of the above?
Okay, a lot of this is the childhood thing. Plenty of adult horror revolves around corruption of childhood imagery.
If it didn't catch you that early, or if you never had a fuzzy childhood attachment to the Scarecrow and Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, don't worry, there's plenty here to traumatize fresh-eyed adults.
Like the original Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz is played as maybe-or-maybe-not a dream. Dorothy gets to Oz while unconscious, under traumatic circumstances, wakes up later in the real world with a logical explanation available for the time in between, and various objects and themes from her life carry into her Oz experience, with the characters who frighten her in and out of Oz played by the same actors.
In the real world, in the mental hospital, Dorothy's in about as helpless a situation as possible. She's physically restrained, under the care of adult strangers, and no one believes or listens to a word she says.
In Oz, a witch who resembles the hospital nurse/warden, who tied Dorothy to the dolly and confiscated her lunch from home, instead throws her in a tower, intending to age her to her prime and then cut off her head to wear as part of her rotating collection.
And the Gnome King, who resembles the doctor who made a token attempt to set Dorothy at ease by introducing her to his machines while making it subtly clear that she had no choice whatsoever in the matter of her treatment, welcomes her cordially to his palace and offers her what he claims is a sporting chance to win her friends back… and then cheats when it seems she might succeed at his ridiculously difficult guessing game, which comes with a penalty of being turned into a conscious but completely inanimate object for all eternity.
The Wheelers don’t connect directly to anything in Dorothy’s real world, but I still find them one of the scariest manifestations of that helplessness.
Translation: These guys are the fear of bullies, amplified to a magical nightmare degree.
Those are the fears that I'm certain Return to Oz got right a hundred percent intentionally, and regardless of the shelf it's found on, I have to pay respect.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome! Or keep up with my fictional musings by joining me on Facebook, on Twitter, or by signing up for email updates in the panel on the right!