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Escape to and Return from Witch Mountain

Michael Ward

From childhood experience to childhood memory, Ward unravels the tangled knots of an oddly affecting story to reveal the connective tissue of a mainstream cult classic.

The subject matter [of the Witch Mountain cycle] was really fun for me, because I thought, well, this probably really exists. It was a great... story device to use at that particular time, and just ultimately, I think, a brilliant way of allowing children to have power over their lives.
-- Ike (Iake) Eisenmann

She's poor. She has no happiness inside.... My grandma says that you know what's inside a person by the face they wear.
-- Olga Nordstrom (Kim Richards), "Town Party-Country Party", Little House on the Prairie (1974)

Almost a century ago, Thomas Mann wrote Tonio Kroger, a novella about a young man, slight of frame, who all his life has felt different from those around him and travels to his ancestral home to find out why. For Kroger, nostalgia isn't just a passing fancy or mellow pastime; it's a necessary (if fruitless) search for some anchor on which he can hang the center of himself. More recently, Thomas Pynchon updated the sentiment Mann explores in Kroger: We all feel, he writes in his debut novel V., "a great temporal homesickness for the decade we were born in."

Among my generation (the decade of my youth was the 1970s), it's alarmingly popular to channel this nostalgia of Pynchon's and Mann's, this feel-it-in-your-bones longing for our origins in childhood, through the media. After all, as the industrialized movie system synthesized with corporate network TV, much of our childhood came to be broadcast to us in living rooms. Two, three, four hours a day or more in those days of Marie Wynn's TV-indicting 1974 book The Plug-In Drug. I know because I matched or even beat that statistic pretty regularly. I watched TV in marathons.

In that sad hierarchy of media recollections that I feel in my bones, Pynchon-and-Mann style, certain Sunday evenings hold pride of place. Weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings were my personal televisual territory, but my parents almost always reserved Sunday evenings for the tediously mature 60 Minutes -- which, tragically, conflicted with my adored Wonderful World of Disney. I generally knew how to make mom and dad's life quite a spell less pleasant if I wanted something, but they were hard to budge on this one. I could only find the resolve if I knew an installment of one of the Witch Mountain movies was going to be on. Flying over the forest in a chroma-key Winnebago, or watching as righteous alien crime-fighting duo Tony and Tia Malone (Iake Eisenmann and Kim Richards) moved shit with their minds for the cause of good, was of limitless fascination to me. On Witch Mountain Sundays, no whine was too high-pitched, no wheedling too severe or shameless. What was it about these airy Walt Disney flicks that cast such a spell over me? And not only me, for the series -- Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and (somewhat lesserly) Return from Witch Mountain (1978) -- enjoys an enduring popularity even today, one that has eluded, say, the 1979 Disney megaflop The Black Hole.

Referenced films:

Escape to Witch Mountain
Director: John Hough
Cast: Kim Richards, Iake Eisenmann, Donald Pleasance, Ray Milland, Eddie Albert
(Walt Disney, 1975) Rated: G
DVD Release Date: 6 July 2004

Return from Witch Mountain
Director: John Hough
Cast: Kim Richards, Ike Eisenmann, Christopher Lee, Bette Davis, Jack Soo
(Walt Disney, 1978) Rated: G
DVD Release Date: 6 July 2004

The answer is actually pretty obvious. The Witch Mountain storyline -- involving a pair of supernatural, extraterrestrial siblings trying to reunite with their other-worldly community -- entwines many powerful narratives, deftly synthesizing, for example, a potent wish-fulfillment fantasy with an almost beatific dream of ascending into the sky, of learning one is not of this Earth and, strangely, embracing this knowledge. Now how could The Cat from Outer Space compete with that?

If you're keeping score, you'll probably conclude that the Alexander Key children's novel deserves much of the credit for the Witch Mountain series' longevity. To an adult eye the 1975 movie is a charming adaptation, but the ideas are really his. What's interesting about the book is summarized by the twist in the grammatical construction of its title. When I talk to people about the Witch Mountain series (which I do rather too much, I think), everyone involved must continually stop themselves from saying "Escape from Witch Mountain", this being presumably due to some arcane association of witches and evil in our collective minds. But here Witch Mountain turns out to be a sanctuary for the orphaned Tia and Tony, whose extraterrestrial brethren have established a kind of survivalist outpost there. An imagined geographic feature in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Key's beloved North Carolina, Witch Mountain, this place, takes on a religious resonance in the book as a promised land, a place not only to seek shelter but also to learn your origins and fate.

For a Disney adaptation, the movie version of Escape to Witch Mountain is pretty loyal to its source, although the book is somewhat more minor key and the movie obviously a lot sunnier. (For example, in the book Father O'Day, Tia and Tony's guardian, is a burly and vaguely misanthropic Vietnam vet, whereas in the movie he becomes Jason O'Day [Eddie Albert], a curmudgeonly widower with a heart of gold -- and in that year that saw the fall of Saigon, Vietnam is never mentioned.) It's maybe most surprising that the movie doesn't soft-pedal Tia and Tony's disturbingly solitudinous backstory. The Key novel is quite free about using abandonment as a dramatic device. In it, Tia and Tony are often isolated and confused and wander inconsolably, basically amnesiac and abjectly friendless, through dismal back alleys. The folks at Disney might have understandably worried that this would upset their target audience, so heavily skewed as it was toward an age group that tends to burst into tears whenever mom and dad momentarily wander out of sight at the mall.

But the Disney movie, as helmed by action and horror guru John Hough, retains a lot of this sense of desolation. (No purveyor of sunbeams and foo-foo bunny rabbits, this Hough, whose CV includes such heartwarming titles as Sudden Terror [1970], Hammer Studios' Twins of Evil [1971], and the magnificent The Legend of Hell House [1973].) Throughout both the book and the movie, the displaced duo trade detailed musings over where they might have come from and what sort of people live there, because they have no direct memory of that formative period between birth and around the age of four. This is a time few of us remember and usually learn about mostly through the stories our parents tell us, but because Tia and Tony are orphans, they have no such tales to rely on. Instead, they have only an impression of a watery crash sometime in their early childhood, and before that a vague awareness of having once spoken a foreign language, one they no longer understand. It turns out, of course, that the memories they have lost are the very ones that would have clued them in to the fact that they are from another planet.

The genius of this story element, this association of childhood with alienness, is to echo that sense, often so strong among children, of having recently come from some other, undiscovered place. This is, after all, the metaphysics of birth, of the way we fail to remember being born. The "dilemma of a child trying to figure out who they are in the world allowed people to have a great time with the movie," Eisenmann speculates on the DVD, by way of explaining Escape to Witch Mountain's longevity, "and also look at their own lives and say, 'Who am I? How am I special, and how can I find that out about myself?'"

* * *

As with the first entry in the series, the book and movie versions of the second, Return from Witch Mountain, are remarkably similar. (And you'll notice that once again the title's preposition is backward from what you might expect, that the point of reference and origin is, as it were, off-world.) This time, though, it's for roughly the opposite reason. Presumably pleased with the job Disney did on the first installment, Key agreed to write the novelization for the second, and it's an honestly fascinating work. Its lines are virtually identical to those spoken in the film, and its descriptive passages follow the movie almost exactly. It diverges from its cinematic source only when it enters the minds of its characters.

Tony, for instance, spends much of the second movie in thrall to Dr. Victor Gannon (played by Hammer veteran Christopher Lee), a mad scientist who has fitted him with a device to control his will. Where in the movie this makes him essentially an empty vassal, a mere vector for Dr. Gannon's force, in the book it serves as the occasion for lengthy digressions describing Tony's frame of mind -- the psychic pain, bordering on torture, of being in this way harnessed and imprisoned. Once again, the association here is with the experience of being alien -- but this time the closest analog is with that of the helpless and institutionalized mad, who still inhabit their bodies but are straitjacketed or drugged until they no longer control them.

And then there is Tia. In the first novel, Key imagines her as more meditative than she is in the movies, because she cannot speak out loud and instead communicates telepathically in a way that only Tony can understand. But her silence, read by so many around her in the book as a handicap, is more like the vow of a Tibetan monk, granting her transcendent wisdom. It endows her with the ability to speak with animals and foresee the future. Her stillness allows her to sweep awareness and empathy all around her, like a body of water of the sort mystics talk about, one that spreads for miles even as it seems to be getting more shallow.

The performer who realized Tia for the screen, Kim Richards, was at that time establishing herself in Hollywood, having garnered her first on-screen role at eight months old and having already notched her belt with generous roles in various made-for-TV movies and television series. But it was the Witch Mountain cycle that turned her into a near legend among child performers, mentioned perhaps not quite so often as Jodie Foster or Hayley Mills, but often in the same breath, and sometimes with even more respect.

Before she joined Disney, Richards's strongest part was probably as a guest star in "Town Party-Country Party", a surprisingly moving episode of the '70s TV ephemeron Little House on the Prairie. There she played Olga Nordstrom, a sad-faced little girl with vanilla braids who lives in a woodsy cabin and seems, along with her rugged blond father Jon (Jan Merlin) and grandmother Helga (Maya Van Horn), to have blinked into Michael Landon's universe from out of an Ingmar Bergman flick. Born with one leg shorter than the other, the handicapped Olga turns out to be a visionary outsider much like the Tia character Richards would later play. She can't run so she sits on the stairway leading up to her schoolhouse and looks on sorrowfully as her compatriots frolic during recess. When they pick her last for relay races, she tries to cover her misshapen legs in shame. The depths of Olga's still waters are conveyed mainly through the compassion she shows for Nellie (Alison Arngrim), an insufferable rich brat who antagonizes everyone but her. Laura and Mary (Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson) constantly gripe about Nellie's cruelty, but only Olga sees that her prickliness disguises an underlying anguish. The question the show asks here, about faces and what lies behind them, is also posed in its own way by the hypnotized Tony -- whose stony visage in Return masks a profusion of mental torment -- and Tia, whose silence in the book version of Escape to Witch Mountain indicates not a mental deficit but an overarching and inexpressible wisdom.

* * *

All this unfolds in a short exchange between Olga and Mary, one which Richards manages with a performative fluency far beyond her years, and which -- not to sound too much like comedy writer David Sedaris, who in Naked jokingly writes a savage review of a play put on by second-graders -- Melissa Sue Anderson frankly butchers, blurting out her lines with far too much emphasis and precious little inflection, not so much acting as reading loudly.

The occasional wooden performance, though, is a predictable hazard of working with child actors. Richards herself, though uniquely talented, is not immune. At one point as Tia Malone in Return, she is imploring the supervisor of a nuclear power plant to let her rummage around in its bowels in search of her brainwashed brother, and she starts flapping her arms frantically and awkwardly in a mode that in no way corresponds to the lines she's delivering. Her arms, in fact, look like they're moving on their own, waggling lankily in that way so common among just-turned teens, with their not-yet-fully honed mannerisms. It's a B-movie payoff moment, terribly cute and amusingly amateurish at the same time. But this is part of the point with child actors, that the words and gestures they put on film are often not entirely performance, their characters not entirely the result of considered aesthetic decisions.

In commenting on this scene, Richards makes the same observation, though coming at it from a different angle. "Look at me with my hands," she says. "They're flapping around and, that's so me. My daughter the other day started laughing at me, I was doing something and she's, 'You're so funny to watch.' And I said, 'Why?' She says, 'When you talk, your hands go like this'" -- and here Richards, off screen, presumably gestures -- "'and like that'.... So I sat on 'em thinking 'I'm so embarrassed,' and I could feel my body moving. And I thought, 'Uh-oh!' I never realized that about myself." What we see on-screen is unpresuming in manner, free of guile, of the pretense a completed fictional persona demands of an adult actor. "There's so much of me in that character," Richards observes later, not immodestly, but merely struck at the familiarity of her former self.

The Witch Mountain movies came at the busiest point in Richards's career to date -- that being the mid- to late 1970s, when she turned up in a slew of popular TV shows, like The Rockford Files, and scored a leading role in another Disney film, No Deposit No Return (1976), not to mention appearing opposite Gary Coleman and Dana Plato in 1979 on Diff'rent Strokes. She also worked in assorted low- to mid-budget movies like The Car and Raid on Entebbe (both 1977). (Parenthetically, she reunited with Eisenmann to make a truly beautiful mess, the zero-budget 1978 Omen rip-off Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell, although these days neither of them probably mentions this at the top of their cover letters.) Watching her in these various roles you often get the sense you get from Return from Witch Mountain, that hers is the presence driving the movie. For example, there's John Carpenter's sophomore project, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), where she gets an Ophelia-esque cameo in which she appears in only two scenes -- but her murder in the second, so abysmal and shocking because she performs it so well, is the dramatic crux on which the entire movie revolves. Or again in No Deposit, when her machinations to get her negligent mom to pay more attention to her and her brother lead her to concoct a wacky scheme involving false kidnappings, forged ransom notes, and plane tickets to Hong Kong. By revising this scheme as she goes along, she basically writes the movie.

After taking a curious role in Meatballs: Part II (1984) and playing love interest with James Spader in Tuff Turf (1985), a B-movie revamping of West Side Story, Richards largely retired from the movie business to raise her four children. She spends a lot of time on Return's commentary track talking about her children and their interest in her Hollywood career -- like her daughter Whitney, who wants to write a book report on why her mom draws crowds at Disneyland the same as Mickey and Goofy, or Kimberly, who likes to watch her mother's movies and try to mirror her inflections. Another favorite topic of Richards's is the empowerment she enjoyed when she was acting, and the screen of fantasy that was stretched across her real-life sensorium. "One of the movies I did," she reminisces, "I got to take a hamburger and smush it in somebody's face. I gotta tell you, it was the best feeling.... I knew she wouldn't do anything back to me because I didn't do anything wrong, because it was my job."

I say these are two separate topics, the empowerment of being in the movies and the raising of her children, but in Richards's mind they're plainly linked; when she sings a paean to the freeing experience of film acting, mention of her kids usually follows not long after. "These kind of scenes? Where you climb through the windshield?" she mentions on the Return commentary as, on-screen, Tia and her allies climb through the broken windshield of a battered minivan. "[Those scenes] are so much fun because they're things -- like climbing through a window -- and I'm the kind of mom...honestly, that if I'm in my truck, and my, you know, any one of the kids says, 'Mom, can I just crawl through the window?' What's the harm? I go, 'Yeah.' Do you know, they feel like they've just conquered the world."

In their own humble way Richards's words amount to a worthy explanation of the Witch Mountain mystique, though she's plainly not trying to explain this phenomenon at that moment. When I was around Whitney's age, I loved the Witch Mountain story so desperately not for its special effects, or for its direction, or for the talent of the actors in it, although all of this obviously helped. I loved it because its characters confronted their solitude, and at the bottom of their pain found compassion, empathy, and strength. I loved it because it gave voice to those fleeting moments of empowerment in my own childhood when I too felt like an improbable visionary, able to move and illuminate reality as though it were an image.

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