John Hough's 1978 sequel to "Escape to Witch Mountain" (also directed by Hough) was a film I remembered as being both creepy and more enjoyable than its predecessor. Unfortunately, it has been 17 years or more since I've seen either film, and I now struggle to understand what I liked about it in the first place.
From the beginning, "Return from Witch Mountain" does do one thing right; it doesn't rehash the original story. Gone is a story of brother/sister duo Tony and Tina learning about their powers and who they are in this world (for the record and those unfamiliar with the original film, they're aliens). Instead, this story splits them up, Tony kidnapped by Dr. (or Professor, depending on his mood) Victor Gannon, financier/crook Letha and her creepy nephew Sickle. Gannon's field of research is mind control, which is demonstrated in one of the picture's true standout scenes, the one that probably creeped me out the most as a child. Gannon uses his device to force the agoraphobic Sickle to scale a building and walk along its ledge. Sickle nearly dies from a fall, but thanks to Tony and his psychic powers, is saved from certain doom. Tony is repaid for his actions by being kidnapped and the newest mind controlled drone of Dr. Gannon.
Meanwhile, Tia meets up with The Earthquakes, a pint-sized gang who spends their days hiding out in an abandoned mansion deep in the city of Pasadena (!). It's established quickly, their biggest foe isn't a rival gang, but Mr. Yokomoto, truancy officer (Jack Soo, collecting a paycheck in a van). It's here where the movie starts to fall apart and also show it's tendency to not age with the times.
Perhaps, I'm overly sensitive, but a gang of 12 year olds roaming southern California, seemingly homeless, doesn't fit my definition of childhood whimsy. However, more importantly, in regards to the film as a whole, these kids can't act. Most of the time, they deliver their lines in a fashion suggesting they are just barely remembering them, or reading them for the first time. The only purpose they serve is to help Tia decode a psychic vision and eventually save her in the second act conclusion. I understand their purpose in terms of plot, but if the performances were even at the amateur level, they would have been more tolerable. Their time with Tia comprises around a third of the screen time and is quite insufferable. When the goat that leads them to Tia in the second/third act bridge has better comedic timing, then something is wrong.
On the other side of things, the acting does get better with Letha and Dr. Gannon, played by Bette Davis and Christopher Lee respectively. They are without a doubt, the sole highlight of this film, despite being plagued with dialogue well beneath their skills. Lee of note, begins playing the role with stoic reserve, but due to sloppy writing, devolves into over-the-top camp at the end; luckily he knows what he is doing and knows exactly how far to go. This sloppy writing alters his character dramatically from a shady scientist proving his genius, to a terrorist madman holding the city hostage for ransom. I found the ending wickedly funny, as it features Lee in full on evil villain mode commanding Tony to kill his sister, but for the film's target audience, this may a bit too frightening. Rest assured, the sloppy script turns him into a bumbling buffoon moments later.
Davis is entertaining as one might expect, playing a crook throughout, but gets pushed to the background by the finale. After watching the bonus features, it's revealed Davis took the role so her grandkids could see her in a movie they would enjoy, so I strongly suspect this role was never intended for someone of her usual gravitas. Still, she winds up being deviously charming and a good foil to Lee's general madness.
In short, "Return from Witch Mountain" starts strong, but falls apart largely do to a poor script, despite the talent of Lee and Davis. The main duo of Tony and Tia (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) turn in decent performances, much better than The Earthquakes, who I've probably said too much about already. However, unlike other classic live-action Disney productions, such as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Freaky Friday," and "Swiss Family Robinson," (all films I've re-watched in the past few years), this movie just doesn't hold up. Only major Lee and Davis fans, and fans of "Escape to Witch Mountain" will find any replay value here.
The 1.75:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer is nothing special, but far better than it could have been. Aside from some color balance issues, which make facial details look soft and absent, I didn't notice any major digital tweaks to the picture. Film grain is present throughout and gets even more noticeable in scenes with special effects shots. Also worth noting, is fairly regular, but minor print damage.
"Return from Witch Mountain" is presented in a remixed 5.1 Dolby English track. It's a serviceable track, but unremarkable as a whole. The surrounds only kick in for the most part during Lalo Schifrin's funky Dirty Harry-esque score. Dialogue is clear and the audio is distortion free throughout. It would have been nice to have an original audio track. Optional 2.0 French and Spanish dubs are present, as are French, Spanish and English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
If there was one area where this DVD shocked me was the level of extras present. The most substantial extra is a commentary with actors Ike Eisenmann, Kim Richards, and director John Hough. The actors were recorded together and have great banter, while Hough's comments are spliced in. Hough tends to provide more background info, while Eisenmann and Richards reminisce about time on the set.
"Making The Return Trip" is a featurettes running under 30 minutes that gathers most important players together and has them talk about the filming. It's a typical talking head piece. "The Gang's Back In Town" is a short interview with a few of actors who played "The Earthquakes." The guys seemed to enjoy talking about their time filming and they genuinely seemed to have had fun making the film. "Disney Kids With Powers" and "1978 Disney Studio Album" are two short video packages that serve as nothing more than ads for other Disney films, animated and live-action alike. "The Eyes Have It" is a short Donald Duck cartoon, obviously included due to its relationship with the movie's theme of mind control. "Lost Treasure: Christopher Lee, The Lost Interview" was the extra that intrigued me most. Not related that much to the film, it's a short interview with Lee on a Spanish language program, conducing the interview entirely in Spanish. It's a well known fact Lee is an accomplished linguist, and I found it interesting to see him at work here. Last but not least, is a feature length "Pop-Up Fun Facts" which is trivia track than runs the length of the film, and a $12 ticket to see "Race to Witch Mountain" in theaters. All in all, this is quite a loaded disc.
Despite credible actors in the roles of the villains and an original story brought to the table for a sequel, "Return from Witch Mountain" isn't the best classic children's film you could spend your money on. It's watchable and obviously "Escape to Witch Mountain" fans will be intrigued, but despite an abundance of worse children's films being out there, there are also much better, including some truly timeless and classic live-action Disney ones I named above. The DVD as a whole is a good package with more extras than expected and both decent audio and video. Rent It.