“Words that stay” – Celebrating The Dark Crystal

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal Bowie Skeksis Gelfling

It’s Twelfth Night, so just time for some festive favourites. Well, Festive Muppetry.

This time, Jokerside takes a double-headed look at Jim Henson’s finest and most ambitious hours on the big screen. Modern fairy tales, all vision and little compromise, that bestrode children fantasy cinema in the 1980s… An astonishing three decades ago… Tomorrow, an Epiphany as Jokerside visits Labyrinth, but first 1982’s The Dark Crystal

AT A CASUAL GLANCE, IT’S EASY TO SLOT THE DARK CRYSTAL AND LABYRINTH INTO THAT PARTICULARLY OVERARCHING SET OF 80S FAMILY FANTASY FILMS. From Willow to Ladyhawke, films that still stretch across Western culture like The NeverEnding Story’s Nothing. While Jim Henson’s big screen masterpieces are separated by four years it’s also hard to avoid seeing The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth as two fantasy classics on one natural line of development, although there are no links in terms of story or myth. Following the human-free, straight and ominous myth creation of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth mixed Henson magic with humans and made the most of David Bowie to construct a musical around its fantastic story. Or the other way round, depending on the paving slab sliding goblin you talk to.

Undeniably, both films contribute some of the most stunning visuals of 1980s cinema, with almost every frame struggling to contain the ambition. While both are very different films, the most striking link between the two is the difficulty both experienced on release. But while one emerged belatedly to marked success, the other demoralised Henson with the result that he never directed a film again.

Off to the alternate dimension of the Goblin Kingdom tomorrow. But first the planet Thra, fittingly a planet of two sides…

The Dark Crystal (1982)

A myth forms

“He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.”

So said co-director Frank Oz about Jim Henson. And there’s no doubt about it, The Dark Crystal is a rather sombre affair. As Oz continued, Henson’s intent was to return to the darkness of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Building the concept from the mid- to late-1970s, the end result is an hour and a half of stunning scenery and stupendous scope, quite jaw-dropping in its realisation and (freed of humanity) timelessness. But in stretching the darkness of the material, or returning it, The Dark Crystal sometimes feels scenes were cut short to stop jokes naturally rolling out and ruining that Grimm intent.

“Another age, another time”

What’s more impressive than the impassioned darkness is how confidently The Dark Crystal throws itself into a mythology, heavily interpreting New Age philosophy and particularly Jane Roberts The Seth Material (still being produced at the time of the film’s release). Lining the crystal are astrological signs and throughout the film ensures the magick is linked to the heavens.

Unlike some other prominent fantasy films of the time, The Dark Crystal doesn’t paint a reality threatened with an impending threat so much as propel alien characters directly into a terrible situation. Not only must disbelief must be suspended for the meek protagonist to quickly embark on his crucial quest, but there is little to relate to. The tone and immense background is immediately set by an omniscient voice, the owner of which we don’t see until the end.

Those weighty words are brilliantly intoned and enunciated in a weighted British tone by Joseph O’Conor. He tells us of the cruel and gentle races, the Mystics and Skeksis, both whittled down to 10 in number. It’s the Skeksis we see first, during the opening titles, the reptilian, birdlike horrors – fixed unmoving in the light of the Dark Crystal.

Creeping dread

“Then strife began”

The Dark Crystal sets its creeping dread in the midst of absolute horror. The power lies totally with the intolerant Skeksis, propelled by the supernatural, motivated by cheating death and preserving their dwindling hierarchy. The vultures are in charge for once. It’s a complicated myth sewn around New Age thinking despite being streamlined from versions Henson initially sketched out. Within minutes we meet Jen the Gelfling, the last survivor of a catastrophe, but the film’s got little time for origins beyond that voiceover. A brief but chilling flashback that explains the reduced Gelfling population comes later with a convenient ‘dreamfasting’ when two of the small explorers meet. Although, small may be inaccurate. While much stock is placed in their waif-like frames, the total dominance of this artificial world makes scale very difficult to judge – and that adds to this disconcerting world.

Wrapped in is the immediate, although brief, suggestion of a cycle – the idea that endings lead to beginnings. Clearly we are at an end. But we never meet anything on mass, with the village of the Podlings savaged by the Skeksis as soon as we meet them. There are two Gelflings and only a handful of other species…

The quest begins

“I don’t think anywhere’s safe anymore”

With a quick detailing of a prophecy he acknowledges should have been imparted to Jen the Gelfling earlier, a dying Mystic sets the time limit (as we learn a conjunction of three suns), the goal (restoring the crystal with a missing shard) and the threat (Skeksis supremacy. Forever).

In a scene that could be a microcosm for the whole film we find the Skeksis gathered around their emperor at the same time. He graphically crumbles as Jen’s kindly mystic mentor fades simultaneously, but the synchronicity isn’t over-explained, presumably something few if any are aware of in the universe, and oddly retained for the revelation of the real conjunction at the close. Along the way, despite never being over-played, these dual deaths make for the disconcerting imagery of.

That grotesque gathering of squabbling Skeksis, their bickering never launching into comedy, and the last horrific moments of their leader, show the film’s intent to test boundaries and not fall easily to the muppet route that had made Henson’s name. But again, scenes like that like sketches lacking punchlines. It makes for an odd tone, or hanging tone as those brutish vultures, their bodies failing, at times look like the worst caricatures of Spitting Image.

From the early dual death we learn all we need to about the Skeksis, from their Machiavellian hierarchy and vicious dethronement that breaks out in their ranks in their version of a conclave, while the calm mystic has the foresight to belatedly dispatch the innocent Gelfling Jen on his dangerous quest. Oddly, there’s no real opposition when he sets out, so introverted are the Skeksis’ troubles, and presumably thanks to the laid back mystics putting it off.

And then there were nine

“What in the world? This place is weird”

Many aspects of this story are familiar. It reconstitutes Campbellian monomyth just as Star Wars had five years earlier (the credit for Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz is no mistake, and would pave the way for the creative pile-up of Labyrinth). As per Joseph Campbell’s tome The Hero with a Thousand Faces, early in his quest, Jen meets the eye-popping oddity Aughra he was sent to find and quickly deduces the real crystal shard from many through some well thought out harmonics. Aughra is the wise guide of the piece in Campbellian terms – cycloptic queen of exposition under her marvellous giant armillary. But it’s a meeting abruptly broken by the dangerous trackers the Skeksis send in pursuit of the Gelfling after the crystal rudely alerts them to his quest – the incredibly realised, horrid but generally ineffectual crab-spiders called Garthim.

Enter monsters

“The Garthim have always come”

That invasion scene is repeated during the later Podling party after a destructive re-enactment at a Skeksis feast. Garthim always like to make an entrance. It’s gloriously repetitive, but looks wonderful every time. That scene of the Skeksis dining in grandeur is another good example of the cut-off sketch – where the runaway dessert is defiantly forbidden from being played for laughs.

Elsewhere, the Skeksis scenes doesn’t work so well for the narrative. The Trial by Stone segment, where the emperor is chosen and challenger Chamberlain banished (each of the Skeksis have wonderfully function-centric names) perversely serves very little function. The Chamberlain’s exile doesn’t even help speed up Jen’s quest or provide access to their castle. The later capture of a Gelfling, the wrong one, may redeem him, but as he loses his distinctiveness from that point it’s an arc rendered pointless. But in terms of ambition, the Chamberlain’s exile is wonderfully produced. The monumental Trial is an inverse of the traditional sword in the stone challenge with the puppets dribbling at the thought of power as blades glint and blows spark on the stone. It’s a sham battle in context, despite the style. And as impressive as it all is, it’s the real moment where it’s a shame that the scale of these considerable beasts in conflict can’t be gauged.

Balance of the Gelflings

“Kill her, we are sworn to kill all Gelflings”

The female Gelfling Kara isn’t there simply to draw tension of the Chamberlain’s motives. In a land of whittled numbers, she completes a circle with Jen. Hers is the land, possessing an innate affinity with animals, able to summon, communicate and compel them. She is literally more world aware than the sheltered Jen, but a later scene shows that in comparison, the male Gelfling can unlock the knowledge of words (“Words that stay” he calls writing). In the old Gelfling ruins, he later discovers why his and Kara’s kind were decimated – deciphering a prophecy a Gelfling would destroy the Skeksis. As a rather bemused Jen remarks early on, “Some directions!”.

An unexpected journey

“This day his pipe gives no comfort”

There’s clear link to the hobbits of Tolkien’s most famous works, and also strains of Herbert’s Dune – an overriding influence on the fictional quest since it was published 20 years before The Dark Crystal was made. And while the balance, pitting the tiny elfin couple against huge grotesques and universal scale is deliberate, it can be as hard to relate to as the shots that jump between puppet close-ups and running human (Jen is another gem in the wonderful resume off Kiran Shah). Still, Jen the Gelfling is an affecting protagonist despite his plain appearance, and his script is purposefully disarming, colloquial and modern.

And along his short quest, despite the film’s sketch approach of a light plot in front of a complex myth, Henson balances foreshadowing well. When the Scientist Skeksis drains life essence from a podling, one of a sweet Fraggle-like race who fostered Kira, it appears to simply reinforce how evil and twisted the Skeksis lust for life is. But near the end of the film, that scene pulls together with the earlier eyeball comedy and Kira’s symbiosis with animals to provide a compelling death trap escape. Prompted by Jen’s call, as Luke once called Leia, spurring the captured Kara on to resist the glare of the crystal. Her gift, and the force of it, is realised.


“You come too late, the Great Conjunction is at hand”

The mystery of the more turtle like reptilian mystics and their contrary force to the Skeksis, painted particularly by their unexplained but beautifully realised procession forms the conclusion of the film. It’s apparent from early on as a symbiosis between good and bad. When we see a Skeksis bitten, a Mystic’s hand bleeds too. The Scientist Skeksis is pushed to his death and a Mystic disappears to little surrounding surprise. And come the conjunction of the planets, the wholeness of the piece actually comes from the balance between the whole crystal and the natural combination of the Mystics and Skeksis. Indeed, it was the hope for one, the destruction for the other, and finally the source of that opening monologue.

“What was sundered and undone shall be made whole”

And so are wrongs are righted, lives restored (except the early tragic landstriders, alas!) and the great voice is either one of great hope or smug hindsight.

The good will out

“This is not Gelfling!”

The Dark Crystal is a slow-moving, momentous, slightly too mature, slightly too dark and utterly engrossing film. Although I know I didn’t feel the same when I was a kid. It was certainly pause for concern for the new owner of ITC entertainment who inherited the first cut of the film and baulked at the film’s previews. Originally conceived to have subtitles backing constructed language for the Skeksis and Podlings, feedback resulted in the soundtrack being freshly revoiced in tones we’ve become familiar with across all of Henson’s work. The original workprints are accessible online, showing an even more disconcerting film. While their removal is a shame for the original version, it was far more of a shame when audiences were expected to take their eyes away from the wonders on screen. If composer Trevor Jones had realised his originally plan to bring industrial electronica and acoustic work to the piece it truly would have been something quite startling. In the end, he provides a magisterial and epic orchestral score.

Production-wise, the co-direction of Jim Henson and frequent partner in crime Frank Oz is magical, despite the scale issues. It says a lot that when the Skeksis’ Crystal bats are sketched against the sky by a stop motion visual effect it looks very out of place. Such is the mastery of the puppetry. It rates highly on the Bechdel scale too, as would be expected from any Henson piece. Even though the world-conscious Kara does fall victim, she is more misused misdirection and divine intervention. The design is sumptuous, a wonderful realisation of the work of fantasy illustrator Brian Froud – with all creative forces constraining the comedy to let pure imagination run riot. Again, a soft spot for those poor landstriders, sloth-like stalks who are a wonderful highlight and their demise an utter tragedy. Even the most muppet-like addition, Kara’s dog ball Fizzgig, is brilliantly disconcerting despite its odd rolling and secondary throat teeth. Fizzgig even encourages one of the most unashamedly heart-stopping moment of concern near the end, just as the doomed podling had earlier rung sorrow from its motionless torture at the talons of the Scientist. See, it sounds irredeemably dark.

The off-camera quest

“Prophets don’t know everything”

For all the familiarity of its story, The Dark Crystal is heavy in exposition position and light on explanation at the end. The call of the mystics or the real nature of the cycle of which we are watching a small part remain unclear. Come the end, a heavily trailed twist of sorts, it’s unclear how the world will unravel. So no wonder talk of a sequel keeps bubbling away over 30 years on. But it took Jim Henson’s determination and self-financing to release the film the trailer correctly calls “a wonder-filled fantasy world” from ITC and bring it to the big screen. The result was a success, taking $40,577,001 against its $15 million budget and turning a palpable profit as it became the 16th highest grossing film of the year in North America. A compelling piece that seems almost too big for the cult appreciation its stock has risen on over the last three decades. But if it taught us anything, things came in twos.

As the omniscient narrator says: “Hold her to you, for she is part of you, as we all are part of each other.”

Tomorrow: Enter Labyrinth

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