The Dark Crystal (1982)

Whenever friends tell me they harbor ill will towards a film that frightened them as children, I’m a little perplexed. The movies that truly terrified me before the age of nine or 10 hold a special place in my heart, for they have left vivid and lasting impressions — from childhood and beyond. Would I like The Dark Crystal, now available on a Collector’s Edition DVD from Sony, so much if it hadn’t given me nightmares when I was six? Probably not.

Crystal‘s ability to inspire terror is indicative of its creators’ amazing craftsmanship. Jim Henson and Frank Oz, of the Muppets, with the help of artist Brian Froud (credited here as a “conceptual designer”), created a live-action fantasy world without any human characters. Instead, this world is populated by the hobbit/elf-like Gelfings; the numerous birdish Skesis; the gently lumbering Mystics; and assorted creatures more menacing than not. Amazingly, all of these characters are puppets, often elaborate. Only the occasional human stunt double can be glimpsed. These technical specs alone make Crystal a rare cinematic achievement, a feature-length puppet show. Even more incredible: the puppets enhance what is otherwise only an average story.

It’s typically secondhand fantasy stuff, this story, owing a lot to Lord of the Rings, as the Gelfling Jen (voice of Stephen Garlick) must heal the titular crystal to vanquish evil. Henson performed the character, and originally intended to voice him too. But recognizable voices like Henson’s and Oz’s were mostly jettisoned in favor of less familiar, often less friendly tones; early scenes featuring the original voices are included on the DVD, and the creators were right: it’s distracting. The recasting is pretty terrific; even the less defined characters seem eerily real. This is especially true of various Skeksis, whose voices a variety of kinds of creepy: gravelly, whiny, hissing, and booming.

The dialogue doesn’t always support the excellent voice actors. Jen in articular is saddled with a lot of clueless, obvious pronouncements (“Now I’ve fallen in mud!”). Fantasy writers have yet to come up with a way of speaking that is both timeless and lacking pomp; language in such movies is inevitably either self-serious or self-parodic. Neither option is appealing.

And yet, despite the clumsy script and slightly worn characters (more than one seems to share DNA with Frank Oz’s Yoda), The Dark Crystal has a primal creepiness I’ve never found in Peter Jackson’s LOTR series. The immediacy of the world Henson and company constructed, dependent on not just puppets but costumes, and the kind of weird, imaginative production design perennially ignored by the Academy, is striking, even on a television screen. This is a fantasy environment that looks real, yet doesn’t resemble anything in our world. It’s at once bigger, with the vast, foreboding desert-centered Castle of the Crystal, and smaller, as we travel through fields at Gelfling-eye level.

Best, there are the Skeksis, a triumph of design — terrible and brilliant. The Skeksis don’t actually personally wreak much destruction, but in way, they’re even scarier for it. When the eight or nine bird-lizard hybrids in garish, raggy robes stand around the crystal in worship and order the deaths of Gelflings, they are desperate to hold onto their power. Here a child viewer might be seeing his or her first display of unsettling ritual, of bad men (or creatures) in charge.

You can see this all more clearly than ever on the DVD. It preserves the movie’s visuals as best it can; there are numerous scratches and flickers on the otherwise rich widescreen transfer (this is probably a result of poor preservation; I saw a projected print of the film several years ago, and it was, excuse my tech-speak, scratched all to hell). This Collector’s Edition, with deleted scenes, trailers, sketches, and a long making-of documentary, is a lot like Sony’s most recent edition of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in that the disc itself isn’t too different from several previous DVD releases. What’s new is the packaging; like Grail, the newest Crystal comes in an oversized case with an accompanying bonus text. In this case, it is a reproduction of a notepad Henson kept when outlining what would eventually become The Dark Crystal. It’s like a small chunk of a coffee table book slipped in with the DVD, and it’s a novel extra.

The Dark Crystal has not, to my knowledge, amassed quite the same cult as Henson’s human/puppet hybrid, Labyrinth (1986); the latter is campier, which never hurts a cult following. But Labyrinth is merely engaging; The Dark Crystal is enveloping in its ambitious re-telling of an old story. It’s worth seeking out, especially if you know children (or parents) who appreciate a good old-fashioned nightmare.