Alexander Key’s ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN has been remarkably successful on screen. A 1975 and ’78 Disney film and sequel, a TV movie remake, a TV pilot Beyond Witch Mountain, and 2009’s RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN. While the book is good, I suspect it’s the success of Disney’s 1975 version (above average for their live-action films of that era) that explains the Mouse constantly revisiting the property.
The protagonists of the 1968 novel are Tony and Tia, pre-teen orphan survivors of a shipwreck they barely remember. Now that their foster mother has died, they’re warehoused in a miserable orphanage. It doesn’t help that they have freaky powers such as TK and telepathy and that Tia talks in a voice only Tony can hear. Things get worse when a mysterious figure named Deranian claims custody of the kids as a relative. They know he’s lying but who will believe them?
Fortunately there’s Father O’Hara, a priest who believes them and deduces Deranian’s agenda: He’s a Soviet agent who intends to get control of the kids and exploit their powers. O’Hara helps them escape but Deranian is very competent, the law’s on his side and he has all his spy network’s resources to draw upon. The kids follow clues to what they think might be a relative or a friend of the family out in the country near Witch Mountain, but it’s not an easy trip, particularly when the locals get a glimpse of their powers and declare a witch hunt.
It all ends well, of course. The kids learn the shipwreck was a spaceship, part of an evacuation fleeing their doomed planet, reunite with the other castaways at Witch Mountain and convince Deranian they’ve left Earth by flying saucer. Even with their powers and O’Hara’s help, it ain’t easy.
The 1975 Disney movie is considerably lighter in tone. The orphanage seems to be a fun place and the bad guys — parapsychologist Deranian (Donald Pleasance) and his millionaire boss (Ray Milland) — are the kind of bumbling foes kids in Disney movies were always running rings around in those days (like I said Saturday, this was not a high point for Disney creatively). And Eddie Albert as O’Hara (not a priest) is another stereotype, a crusty old dude who only needs custody of the two adorable moppets to thaw into a lovable guy. Still, it’s way better than The Cat From Outer Space. “Do you know what the word ‘castaway’ means?”
Three years later the kids RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN to get a taste of life in the big city (which hardly seems like anything an alien colony would consider important). When Tony displays his powers he attracts the attention of wealthy Bette Midler and her evil scientist Christopher Lee, who quickly enslaves Tony with his mind-control tech. Can Tia and a gang of cuddly but street-smart kids rescue her brother? Although the cute factor gets dialed up, the villains are more memorable (Lee’s plan is to have Tony push a nuclear plant to go Three Mile Island unless the government pays up big) and there’s a spectacular TK battle between Tony and Tia at the climax. “You’re the worst kind of gambler — you use other people’s money and want to keep all the winnings for yourself.”
RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (2009) is a surprisingly good reboot that raises the stakes — rather than refugees seeking new life, Earth is facing an invasion from the doomed world unless two alien teens can make it back home with evidence that Earth-based research can save their planet from eco-collapse. Against them is an assassin the warhawk faction has sent to ensure the war goes ahead and DHS agent Ciaran Hinds, who wants the teens as science experiments so he can duplicate their powers (it shows the “bogeyman” principle I mentioned in Screen Enemies of the American Way, that these villains are interchangeable — a Commie spy, a millionaire, an American operative can all serve as the bad guy here).
But not to worry, when the kids hire a cab driver it turns out to be Dwayne Johnson, ex-con and former underworld wheel man, trying to stay straight. Not that he believes these weird kids or that he’s going to stick his neck out for them, hell no … Carla Guggino plays an expert in extraterrestrial life and Garry Marshall is a UFO paranoia crackpot.
Key’s premise reminds me (and I’m not alone) of Zenna Henderson’s stories of “The People,” aliens who fled their dying world, crashed on Earth and are slowly gathering in their lost ones to the valley where they settled. THE PEOPLE (1972) is a low-key adaptation of the short stories, with Kim Darby as a teacher trying to figure out why this community seems so weird and William Shatner as a local doctor wondering the same thing. A quiet, gentle film — too gentle for some people, but I like it. “Can’t you see that the time of fear is ending? That’s why you were sent.”
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