Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Return From Witch Mountain (1978)

The perhaps inevitable result of a 58-year acting career is the slow decline, and Disney kid-movie sequel Return From Witch Mountain (following 1975's Escape to Witch Mountain) finds Bette Davis in paycheck-cashing who-gives-a-shit mode, not even appearing to take any devious pleasure in her role as a money-hungry villainess who exploits a pair of kids with supernatural powers.

Despite getting top billing, Davis isn't really the star of this movie; the main characters are telekinetic preteens Tony and Tia, who, after having escaped to Witch Mountain, now, uh, are on vacation from Witch Mountain, dropped off by their uncle in a flying saucer that lands in the middle of the Rose Bowl. He sets these kids free to roam in Los Angeles, where Tony is quickly kidnapped by a pair of bumbling villains bent on taking over the world and Tia befriends an absurdly nonthreatening gang of tween street toughs who dress like the proto-Warriors. That's some great childcare right there.

Davis and Christopher "Saruman, Dracula, Count Dooku" Lee play the villains, and Lee seems to be having a much better time than Davis. His dapper mad scientist has about twice as many lines, and he never fails to make each pronouncement as absurdly evil as possible. Davis, slathered in pancake makeup and looking very tired, doesn't even get in a good cackle. This seems like the kind of role an iconic actress should enjoy in her dotage, but the whole time Davis looks like she wants to go home. She spends many scenes just standing awkwardly in the background.

No matter what, though, Davis is a professional; the child actors (including Paris Hilton's aunt as Tia!) are far, far worse, and get more screen time. Tony spends half the movie under a mind-control spell, which means the kid playing him barely says a word for a good 45 minutes, which was a really smart directorial choice. Still, the faux street toughs provide enough annoyance for three movies; add that to a plot that makes no sense, constant lurching from comedy to sci-fi seriousness and some of the cheesiest effects the 1970s could buy, and you've got one painful Disney experience best left to hazy childhood memories.

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