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The psychic teenage sensations who dominated Gen X childhoods, Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards) reunite for another adventure in Return from Witch Mountain (1978), the sequel to the popular and very successful Disney family adventure Escape to Witch Mountain (1975). When the film opens, the extraterrestrial brother and sister disembark from a flying saucer that touches down in the Los Angeles Rose Bowl. They are escorted to Earth by their Uncle Bene (Denver Pyle) for a vacation. But once again, the pair find their superhuman abilities attract the notice of some unscrupulous grown-ups and land the children in trouble.
Now adolescents, Tia and Tony are still pursued by ne'er do well adults bent on exploiting their psychic abilities to nefarious ends. In Return from Witch Mountain those adults are a who's who of classic film culture, including Hammer horror regular Christopher Lee as the well-dressed, wine-drinking scientist Victor who wants to take over the world. Joining him is golden age Hollywood queen Bette Davis as his cohort Letha. When Tony and Tia are separated, the evil Victor uses his power for mind control to hypnotize Tony into first helping them steal and then rule the world.
The Witch Mountain films capitalized on an us-against-them theme, not so much countercultural as generational epitomized by the scruffy group of kids, the Earthquake Gang, who help Tia rescue her brainwashed brother.
Bette Davis enjoyed a second wind in the sixties and seventies as an older actress in thrillers such as Burnt Offerings (1976) and the Agatha Christie mystery Death on the Nile (1978). Though the idea of doing a film for children left Christopher Lee with some doubts, he jumped at the opportunity to work with Davis. "When I was told it was an opportunity to work with her, of course I didn't worry unduly about the script or the story. I said, 'Yes,' because she's the finest actress I can recall in America or world cinema," he recounted in Charlotte Chandler's Davis biography, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone.
Davis and Lee got along famously and the actress regaled Lee with tales of her family, her beloved grandchildren and her glory days in Hollywood's studio system alongside a variety of admired and reviled actors and actresses. "There were two she did not get on with, to put it mildly, Miriam Hopkins and Joan Crawford. You only had to say Crawford, and she would start to soar toward the ceiling." But Lee admired her consummate professionalism and refusal to play the diva, despite working, in her seventies, on her first Disney film. "Bette played this part in our Disney movie as if she were doing an Academy Award film," he observed.
The year before, Davis had been the first woman to receive the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, an honor previously given to John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles and William Wyler. Despite her sterling reputation as one of cinema's most gifted actresses, Davis was fairly forthright about her motives in making films like Return from Witch Mountain: money. As Lawrence J. Quirk quoted Davis in Fasten Your Seat Belts, "It's the bane of my existence. People expect a star to live high no matter how old she gets, or whatever the state of her finances may be." But Davis found some advantages in her Disney roles. As she observed in her autobiography The Lonely Life, "My young grandson, Ashley, was thrilled when he heard that his grandmother was to be in a Disney film, and for the first time was very impressed with the fact that I was a movie star. From then on he treated me with infinitely more respect. I found all this to be great fun."
Variety noted that "Lee makes one of the best Disney villains in years." In her New York Times review Janet Maslin applauded the film's "abundance of mischief" and "its emphasis on good, clean, freckle-faced fun." But she found John Hough's direction "ungainly at its best" and chided him for shooting a ghoulishly made-up Davis in tight close-ups, cautioning, "there's such a thing as gallantry." Davis must not have minded, because she had Hough direct her again in another Disney thriller, The Watcher in the Woods (1980).
Producers: Jerome Courtland, Ron Miller
Director: John Hough
Screenplay: Malcolm Marmorstein; Alexander Key (characters)
Cinematography: Frank Phillips
Art Direction: John B. Mansbridge, Jack Senter
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Film Editing: Bob Bring
Cast: Bette Davis (Letha), Christopher Lee (Victor), Kim Richards (Tia), Ike Eisenmann (Tony), Jack Soo (Mr. Yokomoto), Anthony James (Sickle), Dick Bakalyan (Eddie), Ward Costello (Mr. Clearcole), Christian Juttner (Dazzler), Brad Savage (Muscles)
C-95m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster