Jim Henson and Frank Oz
USA / UK, 1982
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 04 October 2006
Source Columbia / Tristar DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Children are ubiquitous on Halloween; as the second largest commercial holiday in the United States, Halloween is tailored for kiddies, with vinyl costumes and mountains of candy at their disposal. In terms of the horror film however, children are typically ignored in favor of a teenage audience far more interested in sex and suspense and understandably so, as most children should not stomach the violence present in such films. There is a niche in filmmaking devoted to children though, a small collection of films that were not created to necessarily frighten them, but inevitably did with their ability to tap into the overactive and wondrous imagination of a child. For the next four Thursdays, we will step back and explore the characters and creatures that may have haunted your own closet, and reassess their cult status in the horror genre.
The Dark Crystal opens with an omnipresent narrator, a rich baritone voice intoning that we have entered “another world… the age of wonder.” The ancient world which is the setting of The Dark Crystal has been divided in half, a binary split between good and evil as represented by the Mystics and the Skeksis, creatures nowhere close in either physical resemblance or spiritual belief, and yet connected by the power of the Crystal that has kept them in dire opposition. Based on a book created by conceptual artist Brian Froud, The Dark Crystal is a skillfully conceived fantasy tale distinguished by its incredibly talented directors; while Frank Oz is undoubtedly a recognizable name, Jim Henson’s is the one responsible for its cult reputation and nostalgia.
It is uncertain how time will affect the memory of Henson and his contributions to both cinema and television. Children raised during the 1970s and 80s knew the Muppets from both film and The Muppet Show as well as their counterparts on Sesame Street (still going strong with 36 seasons and more than 20 international versions of the show airing around the world). However, a film such as The Dark Crystal is highly improbable as a current film production; Pixar has taken hold of younger viewers, and fantasy is presented though CG effects, most recently noted in the Lord of the Rings series. Compared to the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark Crystal is expectedly less complicated and far less violent, but it is not disparaged by the comparison; Henson, continually adamant in his efforts to entertain both children and adults, is far more adept than Peter Jackson at maintaining a tone that is not only easily grasped by kiddies, but also engrosses older viewers. The Dark Crystal manages to combine a classic fairy tale plot with genuine imagination and seemingly effortless performances by the Muppets and their handlers.
Henson took great care in creating Muppets with very little likeness to the creatures his audience was already familiar with. Without a doubt, the villains in the tale have the largest appeal and remain strongest in the memory of young viewers; the Skeksis first appear in a Druid-like ceremony, worshipping the Dark Crystal under hoods and cloaks. A dying race, the Skeksis use the energy of the Crystal to maintain their power, ruling this world from a malformed, hulking stone castle constructed in a vast and bare desert. A closer look reveals gnarled, twisted features in a creature that resembles something between a hulking vulture with a parrot’s beak. With their Emperor dying (a visage and manner oddly similar to Quentin Crisp), the Skeksis appoint a new leader, with the urgent knowledge that something is changing in their world; A prophecy long forgotten is beginning to hold true, as it is revealed that a Gelfling, a creature rumored to destroy the Skeksis race, has been discovered.
Gelflings live into the green valley inhabited by the Mystics, peaceful and lumbering sloth-like creatures driven away from the castle by the Skeksis at the origin of the Dark Crystal. Both the Mystics and Skeksis are endangered, with identical numbers left on each side. However, the Mystics are able to send Jen, who believes he is the last Gelfling, on a quest to not destroy but heal the Dark Crystal with a single shard. Jen’s mission will not be unfamiliar to anyone familiar with basic legend or folklore; he is resistant to his destiny, and seeks understanding of not only his world but also himself.
Jen encounters several creatures on his quest, ranging from the Aughra, a wizened old creature vaguely resembling a cranky, female Yoda; round, furry, and lively Podlings; the Garthim, enormous, evil beetles used by the Skeksis; and another Gelfling, a female named Kira who joins Jen on his quest. The journey is of course, fraught with peril, with two especially disturbing scenes; while staying with the Podlings, the festive burrow is demolished by the Garthim, breaking down dirt walls in search of the Gelfling, but kidnapping Podlings in their search. Loss is a subtle but important emotion in the film, with both Jen and Kira orphaned through Gelfling genocide, and this scene accurately portrays the uncertainty and fear they have both experienced in their lives, a rather traumatizing element to the story.
Eventually the abducted Podlings are taken to the Skeksis castle where they are forced into slavery in a fairly sinister fashion. Strapped down in chairs a la Clockwork Orange, the Podlings are forced to look into the light of the Crystal. Once their eyes are enraptured, bodily fluid is drained via an IV, rendering the small creatures helpless. It’s a genuinely eerie scene, particularly since it results in not only zombie slaves, but also in the drinking of this “essence” by the Skeksis, who believe it is a key to eternal youth. I find it particularly notable that this “essence” is not merely described as one’s happy thoughts, but also the negative element of fear; it is plausible that an evil creature such as a Skeksis would live on fear, but there is also merit in the connotation of fear as a worthy emotion, not a sensation to be disregarded or unwanted. Details such as this enhance the story of The Dark Crystal, which to some degree is a certain philosophical slant based on connection and the power of the natural world; healing is not meant for only the Crystal, but for the Mystics and Skeksis, whose separate yet parallel existence will only be repaired by Jen’s success in his quest.
Henson’s mythical tale remains visually robust, both in setting and also in the masterful efforts by the cast of The Dark Crystal, including the director himself. The imagery, now close to twenty-five years old, still looks as impressive and genuine as it did upon release. The Muppets are incredibly physical conceptions, with mannerisms and expressions that are both vivid and convincing—charming for the older viewer in their skillful performance, while enthralling for the imagination of young children. Although The Dark Crystal is a product of a bygone era in cinema, with puppets now only prominent in cult DVDs from the Czech Republic and Great Britain, Henson’s work might very well become an enduring classic as it still holds strongly in the imaginations of the adults fortunate enough to have experienced its magic in their childhood.