Escape to Return from Witch Mountain

Disney’s Witch Mountain movies are exceptionally lightweight fantasy/science fiction adventure movies about psychic children from space. Nevertheless the original two entries from the 1970s are of some historical interest due to the presence of Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, Bette Davis and Ray Milland in the villain roles, as well as some surprising connections to the early work of John Carpenter.

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) is based on a 1968 novel by Alexander Key. Screenwriter Robert Malcolm Young, whose CV consists mostly of US crime shows, takes some liberties with the source text to remove its cynicism about humanity but otherwise keeps the basic concept and structure. Director John Hough came to the movie via Hammer’s erotic horror Twins of Evil (1971) and Richard Matheson adaptation The Legend of Hell House (1973), although there’s little evidence of the flair displayed in either of those movies.

Rescued from the sea and adopted by the Malones when they were respectively five and three years old, Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards, played in flashback by younger sister Kyle Richards) arrive at an orphanage after the deaths of their foster parents. During a baseball game Tony reveals his telekinetic abilities, boosting his jumping capabilities to catch a ball and levitating a catcher’s mitt to punch a bully. When playing his harmonica he can carry out more complex tasks such as manipulating a marionette or (later in the movie) attacking a dodgy policeman with his own uniform on a hatstand. Tia is less adept with telekinesis unless it involves picking locks, but she is also telepathic, able to communicate silently with her brother or any animal (such as Winkie, a beautiful black cat who adopts them and is featured here at Cinema Cats.)

Tia is also subject to occasional premonitions of danger, warning Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasance) not to get into his car just before a tow truck plows into it. Unfortunately Deranian happens to work for Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland), an occult-obsessed millionaire, who arranges for forged documents “proving” Deranian to be the siblings’ uncle so that Bolt can bring them onto his extensive estates and exploit their powers for profit. Escaping with the assistance of Winkie, a telepathically controlled pack of Dobermans and a feisty black stallion, they sneak into the camper van of grumpy old man Jason O’Day (Eddie Albert), whose indulgent behaviour towards the cat proves that he is secretly a good sort. After various encounters with law enforcement, a friendly bear and the superstitious townsfolk at the base of Witch Mountain, the children reunite with their presumed-dead Uncle Bené (Denver Pyle), leave Jason in the care of Winkie and depart in a cool flying saucer. Anticipating E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the siblings outdo E.T’s trick with the bicycle by flying Jason’s camper to the top of the mountain.

Although Donald Pleasance (Halloween) is largely operating in neutral gear, Ray Milland (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) is having fun with the material and takes the occasional bite out of the scenery. Among the cast’s more genial old men, Eddie Albert would appear later in 1975 as a psychic researcher investigating Satanism in the much darker The Devil’s Rain (1975), while Denver Pyle is better known as Mad Jack in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1977-1978).

Director Hough returned to direct Return from Witch Mountain (1978), which was based on an original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein and received a tie-in novelisation by original author Alexander Key. Marmorstein had written for Dan Curtis’ gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971) in its first year, before they spiced things up with the introduction of a vampire, and Return from Witch Mountain was his follow-up to Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (1977).

The story this time is more pedestrian, but allows for a greater range of comic adventure hijinks than last time and models its villains accordingly. Uncle Bené uses his flying saucer to drop off Tony and Tia in a baseball stadium, giving them some pocket money for a week’s holiday in the city. Meanwhile Dr. Victor Gannon (Christopher Lee) is testing his new mind control chip on Sickle (Anthony James), the nephew of his benefactor Letha Wedge (Bette Davis), nearly bankrupted from funding Gannon’s research which is only now beginning to show results. After Tony uses his telekinesis to save Sickle from a fall, Gannon abducts Tony for experimentation and mind control purposes. Tia falls in with a gang of young boys who help her to look for Tony, while Wedge uses Tony to rob a museum before Gannon decides that nuclear blackmail would be a much better scheme. Along the way, the child gang learn the Valuable Lesson that truant officer Yo-Yo (Barney Miller‘s Jack Soo) just wants them to have better lives, so they agree to stop skipping school.

The flying saucer effects this time are terrible, but the car chases (and crashes) are a lot more impressive and there’s an increase in the number of heavy objects floating around. The new writer feels the need to throw around terms like “energise” and “molecular control” as lip service to explain the teenagers’ powers, but this does little to make them any more plausible. Due most likely to the urban setting there’s a distinct lack of animals available for telepathic conversation – nanny goat Alfred (inexplicably living in the basement scientific laboratory) puts in a decent showing, but is no substitute for Winkie the cat. Christopher Lee has all of the best material and gives the script his villainous best while Bette Davis hangs around looking suave, particularly enjoying herself when she has the opportunity to bring him back to earth with her constant demands for money. Anthony James, perennial villainous henchman in westerns and crime shows, has the opportunity to send up his usual roles – brought to mind all the more strongly by Lalo Schifrin’s score, which is hilariously determined to pretend that this movie is actually a gritty 1970s cop show.

Disney have since made three attempts at reviving the Witch Mountain series. Beyond Witch Mountain (1982) attempted to set up a TV series by ignoring the sequel, bringing back Eddie Albert in his role from the first movie and recasting the children with younger actors. The intended quest for other lost alien children never went anywhere, although they did at least bring back Winkie the cat (presumably also recast). A modified version of the original script was remade as Escape to Witch Mountain (1995) with Robert Vaughn, Brad Dourif, Vincent Schiavelli and a pre-West Wing Elisabeth Moss, before Disney finally threw out the script and rebooted the concept as a vehicle for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with Race to Witch Mountain (2009), giving cameo roles to dubiously self-identified alien abductee Whitley Strieber and the actors who played the original children (who had reprised their roles in 2002’s internet parody The Blair Witch Mountain Project.)

Speaking of those actors, I’ve saved their careers for last. Kim Richards began her career on Nanny and the Professor (1970-1971), a Mary Poppins-influenced sitcom which was still airing in after-school repeats when I was a child. But this isn’t the reason she looked so familiar to me – in between the two Witch Mountain films, she played Kathy, the little girl in search of an ice cream who is gunned down in the beginning of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)! She and her sister Kyle turned up together soon after in The Car (1977), an evil car movie predating Stephen King’s 1983 novel Christine (which Carpenter filmed later that year). Meanwhile, Ike Eisenmann played one of the main characters in The Fantastic Journey (1977), a short-lived lost-in-the-Bermuda-triangle SF TV show which left scattered imagery imprinted on my young mind. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann appeared together again seven months after the second Witch Mountain movie in the 1978 Halloween TV movie Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell, an obscure ripoff of the slightly less obscure Dracula’s Dog (1977) (which was released outside of America under the far more delightfully melodramatic title Zoltan… Hound of Dracula). But far more significantly, just six days before Devil Dog was to air on TV, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) made its cinema debut with two actors from the original Witch Mountain movie – Donald Pleasance in perhaps his most famous role (which he would reprise in four sequels), and Kyle Richards (younger sister of Kim) as Lindsey Wallace, one of the two children under the care of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. Kyle is set to return to her role as Lindsey in Halloween Kills (2021), the followup to 2018’s 40-years-later sequel Halloween.

Of the original two Witch Mountain films, Escape to Witch Mountain has the better story and could stand on its own quite well (although I think it would make an interesting double feature with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). Return from Witch Mountain is the dodgy cash-in which turns out to be more fun thanks to the presence of Christopher Lee and Bette Davis. But I can’t honestly recommend them as anything more than curiosities – I’ve been meaning to revisit them for a long time because of their casts and vague memories of the original, but I don’t expect I’ll ever watch either of them again.

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