Remembering the Gateway Horror Energy of Disney’s ‘Witch Mountain’ Films

WItch Mountain

Disney is well-known for its family-friendly fare. In fact, the media conglomerate has made billions of dollars manufacturing and distributing feel-good films that rarely veer into genre territory. However, there are a handful of exceptions. Two such examples are the 1975 sci-fi offerings Escape to Witch Mountain and the 1978 sequel, Return from Witch Mountain. 

In spite of never quite veering into full-on horror territory, the Witch Mountain films are, nonetheless, deliver a surprising amount of horror energy. Some of the horror elements are definitely intentional and some are probably mere happenstance. But one thing is for sure: Disney’s Witch Mountain films have much to offer the burgeoning horror fan.  

Escape to Witch Mountain sees Tia (Kim Richards) and her brother Tony (Ike Eisenmann) taking up residence at an orphanage after the untimely deaths of their foster parents. When a chance encounter with a stranger unwittingly reveals that the siblings possess supernatural abilities, they quickly become the target of eccentric billionaire Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland) who has sinister plans to exploit Tony and Tia’s extraordinary capabilities. 

As for the film’s horror credibility, Escape to Witch Mountain features a cast of characters that are sure to be recognizable to genre fans. Donald Pleasence (Halloween) features prominently as Deranian, the right-hand man of eccentric millionaire Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland of Dial M for Murder). Pleasance was well known to horror fans by 1975, thanks to a career that spanned many decades. And I suspect his casting may have been quite intentional. He was a recognizable face and appeared in macabre cinema and television for years. So he was a natural fit for such an endeavor.

Additionally, the first installment in the With Mountain series features Kim Richards (who would go on to appear in Assault on Precinct 13The Car, and Sharknado 3). Richards’ younger sister Kyle (who would later feature in John Carpenter’s Halloween and eventually in Halloween Kills) also pops up in an uncredited role as ‘young Tia’. 

No one could have predicted the Richards sisters would go on to make a name for themselves in the genre space at the time the film was made. But that distinction, nonetheless, adds to the horror credibility of the Witch Mountain films. 

As for thematic elements, there is a certain amount of horror inherent to the story. Tia and Tony are alien beings with the ability to levitate, communicate telepathically, and even see the future. Moreover, the juvenile protagonists are effectively kidnapped by Deranian and then relentlessly pursued after narrowly escaping his sprawling compound. The combination of horror-adjacent themes makes the film even more noteworthy to horror fans as well as securing its status as a solid gateway genre effort.   

The 1978 follow-up effort, Return from Witch Mountain sees Tia and Tony leaving Witch Mountain and traveling to Los Angeles as tourists. While there, Tony prevents a man’s death. In doing so, he reveals his powers to a sociopathic scientist that kidnaps him with the intent of exploiting Tony’s otherworldly gifts.   

In this follow-up effort, Kim Richards returns as Tia and Ike Eisenmann reprises his role as Tony. The returning cast members are joined by Christopher Lee, who features as Victor, the scientist intent on weaponizing Tony’s abilities by way of an experimental mind-control device. 

Lee was a logical addition to the cast. He was an iconic actor and a legend in the realm of genre cinema. Seeing as the storyline featuring Donald Pleasance concludes at the end of the original, it makes perfect sense to fill that void with a thespian that had a similar background to Pleasence.  

Lee is quite enjoyable in his turn as Victor. The character is over-the-top and the iconic performer seems to have no problem chewing a bit of scenery when the opportunity arises. He’s fun to watch as he becomes increasingly eccentric, sort of taking on the role of the mad scientist. 

As far as quality, Return from Witch Mountain isn’t quite as enjoyable as its predecessor. It is, nonetheless, steeped in genre tropes, featuring a similarly impressive cast of characters that includes Bette Davis, who had recently appeared in the slow-burn chiller, Burnt Offerings

The sequel is less effective, in part, because it recycles many of the narrative elements of its predecessor. Also, separating Tia and Tony following the kidnapping serves to make the narrative feel slightly discombobulated as the story bounces back and forth between their respective arcs. However, Return is still reasonably entertaining and is certainly worth watching at least once if you haven’t checked it out.  

All in all, the Witch Mountain films are a fun time and feature far more horror energy than one might expect from Disney fare marketed to youngsters. If you haven’t seen the Witch Mountain films and are keen to have a look, both are streaming on Disney+ as of the publication of this post.   

If you’re down to chat more about gateway genre pictures, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @FunWithHorror.



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