In this episode we discussed The Dark Crystal from 1982, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
If you want to follow us on twitter we are @stillscaredpod, and our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Intro music is by Maki Yamazaki, and you can find her work at makiyamazaki.com. Outro music is by Joe Kelly, and their band Etao Shin are at etaoshin.co.uk Artwork is by Letty Wilson, find her work at behance.net/lettydraws
Ren: Welcome to Still Scared: Talking Children’s Horror, a podcast about creepy, spooky and disturbing children’s books, films and TV. I’m Ren Wednesday, my co-host is Adam Whybray, and today we’re talking about the 1982 film The Dark Crystal, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
(Theme music plays)
Ren: Good morning, Adam!
Ren: And good morning to all our little podlings, who hopefully won’t have their life essence drained by this episode.
Adam: That’s a promising start, Ren!
Ren: I like to start things off on an optimistic front.
Adam: Well, I think we’re both a bit bunged-up with cold, and if you can tell, I have a slight speech impediment because I’m currently talking through just one of my two front teeth. My false front tooth coming out, I woke up and it was sticking out at a jaunty angle and I spat it out into my hand —
Ren: In true children’s horror fashion.
Adam: It’s now on top of my bookcase and it looks like a mouldy old fossil. Which appropriately looks like it could fit right in to the mise-en-scene of The Dark Crystal. Maybe I should try to turn it into a little puppet.
Ren: So that is our topic today, The Dark Crystal from 1982, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
Adam: Sharing puppetry-wrangling responsibilities between them.
Ren: Which is exciting! And the main draw of the film really, the puppets. There’s very impressive puppetry.
Adam: Absolutely, and looking at the credits the puppeteers are credited, nicely, before the voice actors. Which is unusual.
Ren: Did you see as well, that there was a special thank you at the end to Alan Garner?
Adam: Oh I didn’t!
Ren: I was watching it with Alex and they pointed this out. But yeah, apparently Jim Henson approached Alan Garner to do the script initially, but Alan Garner was too busy.
Adam: So we really can justify this one as children’s horror, if we have Alan Garner on board.
Ren: The stamp of Garner. And concept art by Brian Froud as well.
Adam: Who is Brian Froud? I recognise the name.
Ren: He did all these fairy books —
Adam: — Oh! Are they the fairy books with the really gristly covers?
Ren: Probably! They catalogue all the fairies and creatures and gnomes and brownies and such, and they’re all quite leathery. Some quite gnarly little things.
Adam: I really don’t know how we’re going to do Texture of the Week this week, because it’s all Textures of the Week!
Ren: I know! It’s one giant Texture of the Week.
Adam: So is this the first time you watched it?
Ren: This is the second time. I saw it the first time a year or so ago.
Adam: Ah okay, who with?
Ren: With Maki, she was showing me a few ‘80s Dark Fantasy films, so we watched this and we watched Willow.
Adam: And what about Alex, had Alex seen it before?
Ren: No, they had a DVD that they’d had for over a decade, and last night I said I was watching The Dark Crystal and they said, ‘Right, this is my chance!’
Adam: Did they find it worth the wait?
Ren: I’m not sure. They enjoyed all the textures. How about you?
Adam: I was mostly in it for the textures.
Ren: Had you seen it before?
Adam: No, as a kid I always vaguely thought it was too old for me, I always had the sense that Labyrinth was for kids, and this was for older people. I don’t know why.
I loved the Muppet movies as a kid, at least Muppet’s Christmas Carol and Treasure Island, and I obviously grew up with Sesame Street, but I never watched The Dark Crystal. I watched FernGully, I think FernGully: The Last Rainforest was my Dark Crystal. That was my hippy-ish Dark Fantasy film as a kid.
Ren: I mean, really we’re just being contrary by not doing Labyrinth.
Adam: We will do Labyrinth! That makes it sound like we have some kind of not doing Labyrinth policy!
Ren: No, Labyrinth will happen. But we’re doing Dark Crystal first.
Adam: Well, obviously if we do Labyrinth we need to play the video game too. Lucas Arts, or Lucas Films’ first video game adaptation. Even before the Indiana Jones games was a Labyrinth adaptation.
Ren: Oh right, yeah. Fair enough. So, I’ll describe the plot, such as it is?
Adam: Plot-wise, if you’ve seen the children’s look-and-read classic from 1989, Through the Dragon’s Eye, it’s basically the same. Have you seen Through the Dragon’s Eye?
Adam: (sings) North or South! East or West! The Quest! Through the Dragon’s Eye!
Ren: Impressed you can still sing through your single front tooth.
Adam: Well you know, I make do. Maybe it’ll help me whistle. Like the bit in Arrested Development where Gob loses his front tooth.
Ren: So we have two species, called the Skeksis and the Mystics, and the Skeksis are cruel and vulture-like and cackling, and the Mystics are like big, slow bear type things. There’e only ten left of each, and both of their leaders are dying.
Adam: Which isn’t a coincidence!
Ren: Our main character, Jen, is a Gelfling, a little elf creature who believes that he’s the last surviving Gelfling, and he’s sent by his dying master on a quest, to heal the crystal, which has been split for 1000 years. And if he doesn’t do it in time, then the Skeksis will rule for ever.
Adam: Well, you know, they’d probably manage to kill each other off pretty quickly, they really like squabbling and hitting big stones with axes and such.
Ren: Yes, it is doubtful that they’d last tremendously much longer.
Adam: They’e looking pretty manky already.
Ren: They’re amazing. They’re sort of vulture-like, really scaly, cobwebby, sinewy.
Adam: They sort of look like they’re made out of rotting giblets and bits of gizzard. Leathery gizzards.
Ren: Yeah! But they also look like they’ve been glitter-glued together. They’re made of rubbish, but then sprayed with glitter.
Adam: Which is sort of the ultimate ‘80s aesthetic, really.
Ren: There’s a certain continuity with The Wheelers, I think.
Adam: Definitely! They look really rag-tag but kind of fabulous at the same time, somehow.
Ren: So Jen sets off, all he really knows is that he has to get the shard of the crystal, at first.
Adam: Yeah, he doesn’t even know what the shard looks like. Interestingly, there’s a bit where a whole bunch of shards spread out before him, and he’s like, ‘how am I meant to tell!’ and he plays a bit of a tune on his little flute Ocarina, and the correct crystal glows, and that’s how he knows.
Ren: Yeah. But once he gets the shard of crystal he really doesn’t have much of a clue what to do at all. As Alex pointed out, he’s kind of:
- Get crystal
Adam: Yeah, it kind of feels a bit like playing one of the old text-only games. Thrust into a fantasy world, you’ve got a few verb-noun combinations at your disposal and just see how you go, really.
Ren: But along the way he does find another Gelfling, who has also escaped from the Skeksis’ Gelfling purge. Because there’s a prophecy that a Gelfling would be the one to bring down the Skeksis, they tried to kill all of them. But Jen and Kira have escaped. Jen being protected by the Mystics, and Kira being protected by the Podlings.
Adam: And when they meet there’s this remarkable mind-meld sequence, where they share their memories, so we get two flashbacks kind of super-imposed onto one another.
Ren: Yeah, it’s really interesting!
Adam: I’ve never seen that done in quite that way in a film before.
Ren: Yeah, because both their memories are happening at once, and all of these time-consuming sequences to animate of their childhoods are overlaid over each other.
Adam: So you get a lot of density of information, but only very suggestively, or impressionistically. It’s really interesting!
Ren: Eventually Jen and Kira realise that they have to take the shard to the Dark Crystal and re-incorporate it to make the crystal whole again. So the rest of the film is them finding their way to the Skeksis’ castle and trying to reincorporate the crystal.
Adam: And on the way having to fight off various beasties, and tumbling down ravines and crevices. And then they get to they crystal and it’s reincorporated! But it turns out the the Skeksis and the Mystics were just two parts of the same whole, and in true Jungian archetype fashion they have to be reincorporated and reunited to make a whole self. And then they transcend this corporeal plane and whisk off into the sky.
Ren: And then I think, Jen and Kira are possibly responsibly for repopulating the planet?
Adam: Yeah, they’ve got a lot of work to get on with.
Ren: Yep. It’s like ‘We leave the planet to you now, Gelflings’
Adam: ‘Get on with it!!’
Ren: But is it scary, Adam?
Adam: Not to me now. As a child, it definitely would have been. Although really there’s not that much to be scared of. It’s mostly just that the Skeksis look so wretched, but then I feel like their silly gibbering, squaring voices rather takes the edge off. Because they have such silly voices. Even sillier than mine!
Ren: Apparently in Alan Garner’s original plan they would have been speaking an entirely created Skeksi language —
Adam: — which I imagine wouldn’t have been gobbledegook —
Ren: — No, no, an actual created language. But apparently test audiences found it too bewildering to have long sequences of Skeksis conversing, so they do have these quite silly squeaking voices.
Adam: (squawks throatily) Arg! The Prophecy!
Ren and Adam: (squawking) Gelfling!
Ren: And then of course there’s one Skeksi who loses the fight to become the next emperor at the beginning of the film and is cast out, and tries to win back favour by bringing Jen and Kira to the Skeksi court.
Adam: But does a very bad job at appearing whatsoever trustable. Which isn’t really his fault because they’re made to look so damn evil and sinister, we know he doesn’t have good intentions, but even he did I don’t think there’s very much he could do.
Ren: Being made of a pile of —
Adam: — festering rubbish.
Ren: And glitter. He has a trademark, well, they describe it as a whimper in a film but it’s more of a: (Ren imitates the Skeksi’s inquiring whine)
Adam: It’s kind of an Oliver Postgate-y noise.
Ren: Yeah! Which is definitely a noise that I heard Maki making now and again before having seen the film. It’s quite an imitable noise.
Adam: It’s now a noise you can add to your own repertoire. Another noise you can make at Alex when you want things: ‘Bilberry wine, mmmmmmm’
Ren: I’m just harvesting noises from all these things that we’re watching.
Adam: The voices are sometimes a little too loud and shrill, perhaps? It’s quite a noisy - well, it’s odd, there’s not loads of ambient noise and music, it’s just the voices. All the voices actors are really going for it. My sister really liked the opening narration.
Ren: Oh yeah?
Adam: She said it had a classic audio tape voice. She also thought it sounds weirdly like David Attenborough narrating Blue Planet.
Ren: There’s a lot of exposition at the beginning.
Adam: Yeah, we’re introduced to these people, the Skeksis and the Mystics, much in the way of an old creation myth. It’s very much going for a high fantasy vibe.
Ren: Like at the beginning of a Zelda game.
Adam: Or, as I said, Through the Dragon’s Eye. We should do Through the Dragon’s Eye. It’s very educational, it teaches you words like Veetacore. It tells you how to spell it and everything, it’s great. Loads of useful educational words that I still use today.
Ren: There’s definitely some scary moments, right?
Adam: What do you think?
Ren: Well, I don’t know if it’s scary, but very unsettling. When the Skeksi emperor dies at the beginning, his face crumbles inwards into dust, in a really quite visceral manner.
Adam: Yeah, I haven’t written many notes, but one I do have is ‘emperor’s head crumbles’
Ren: As opposed to went the Mystic dies, and they just sort of twinkle away into nothingness.
Adam: Because we all know when good people die they twinkle away into the ether, but when bad people die they crumble into dust.
Ren: Mmmhmm. And the Skeksis have creatures called Garthim, who they use to do their bidding who are these big scuttling beetle creatures, and there’s definitely something quite unsettling about them. They burst through walls a lot, trying to get to Jen. Clawing their way through.
Adam: And there are these nice little sinuous horse-bats later, that they kill.
Adam: Later, Jen rides upon this… to me it reminded me of a horse crossed with a bat, with long spindly bats. Like one of Salvador Dali’s paintings of elephants.
Ren: Oh yes, that’s what they look like!
Adam: And then the horrible beetles kill them! Which is sad, they were probably my favourite creature in the film.
Ren: They’re very spindly-limbed, but big bodies. There’s a lot of creatures. It’s dense and writhing with creatures. Anytime there’s a background pan over the forest, there’s all these tiny little puppet creatures wibbling and moving around, which is really lovely and makes the world feel alive.
Adam: Yeah, and it kind of feels like the end-point of the Henson project really, because that’s one of the things you get in the Muppet movies, things coming to life that you don’t necessarily think are going to come to life. I always remember the vegetables that sing in A Christmas Carol. But in this every rock and worm —
Ren: — and piece of moss. There’s a good tentacled plant, that slithers over the ground.
Adam: Actually I think that tentacular plant might be part of my Texture of the Week so shall we do it now.
(Rhythmic scraping noise) Texture!
Adam: Texture of the week!
Ren: Texture of the week!
What have you got there Adam?!
Adam: I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before! It’s just the speaker. But it’s nicely ridged, so it’s a bit like a scraper instrument. Very satisfying to do to.
Ren: So, what did you chose from this vast —
Adam: — menagerie of textures. Well, I don’t know if this was the same tentacular scribbly thing you were thinking of, but I’ve written ’snotty tree in jungle’. Right near the beginning of the jungle sequence there’s a tree, and it looks like its roots are made of snot, almost. It’s really gross, but kind of gorgeous at the same time! It looks really wet and tendril-y and goopy. Like it’s made of these wet strands.
But the whole first pan across the jungle was incredible, in the sense of the sentience of all vegetable matter. This squamous, writhing, wet living jungle.
Ren: I… um…
Adam: Too overwhelmed!
Ren: I’ve got texture choice paralysis! I just don’t know. As we haven’t mentioned Aughra yet, who is quite wonderful. She’s the person —
Adam: The seer perhaps?
Ren: Yeah, that Jen goes to to find the shard of crystal. She has one eye and she can take her eyeball out of her socket, and Jen looks up to see this hand holding an eyeball. And later she puts her eyeball on a shelf. I quite enjoyed that eyeball on a shelf.
Adam: Ooh, like my tooth on a shelf at the moment.
Ren: Yes exactly, that’s the theme of this episode, body parts on shelves.
Adam: I’m glad we’ve got a theme!
I should have got my tooth in as like a guest speaker.
Adam: Not sure!
Ren: Is this a bappy situtation?*
Adam: (croaky puppet voice) I’m toothy!
Ren: How about toothy does the outdo?
Adam: Okay, that’s fair.
Ren: Also in horrifying textures, probably the most disturbing moment is the poor Podlings who have been captured by the Skeksis and turned into their slaves, have their life essence drained for the emperor to drink.
Which means that they’re Clockwork Orange strapped down into a chair and they’re made to look at the crystal, and this sucks the life out of them. But the Podling’s face, as the life is drained from it is very effective and a pretty unhappy texture.
Adam: How does it change, does it sag?
Ren: Yeah, it looks kind of bleached out, and doughy. I don’t know how much of that is reading into the puppet.
Adam: I mean, puppets tend to look quite doughy.
Ren: Maybe it’s just because it’s not being made to do any expression so it just looks lifeless.
Adam: Or is the puppet left alone upon the shelf actually vested with more life than the puppet made to dance at the end of a string, or upon the hand of a puppeteer?
Adam: Hmmmm. I think I did quite possibly pose that question in my PHD thesis. Whilst stroking my beard.
Ren: Notable mention to a line from Aughra where Jen’s talking about his master and she says: ‘Is your master here?’ And he says ‘Oh no, he’s dead’ and she says ‘Hmm, could be anywhere then’. Which I quite enjoyed.
Adam: And also fits the universal animism of the film.
Ren: Maybe he’s a mulchy bit of moss squirming on a tree.
Adam: But generally this film seemed to be very much pro-Gaia. It felt like the people making it should be wearing those t-shirts with wolves on.
Ren: Oh yeah, mm.
Adam: I’ve written ‘the most prog rock of children’s films’ but actually I think it’s the most symphonic metal of children’s films, more specifically. I can imagine Dream Theatre doing a concept album around this.
Talking about the music actually, the over credits music was bizarre! It starts off as generic end of a fantasy film music and then it just freaks out occasionally and goes really manic! It was really strange.
Ren: It did do that.
Adam: It’s hard not to just revel in the textures, because it is an odd film in as much that if you just describe the story it sounds very generic and kind of boring, but if you invoke the world it’s incredibly rich. So it is kind of testimony to the fact that film doesn’t have to be a narrative medium.
Yes, storytelling is important to many films but it needn’t be, necessarily, because I did really enjoy it, even though the plot is pretty non-existent. I just liked being in the world, and seeing all those puppets.
Ren: Yeah, I enjoyed watching it with Alex because we were watching and texting each other and it just meant that every time we saw something interesting we pointed it out like, ‘ooh, look at that interesting tentacled thing’. Just enjoyed the textures. It’s gorgeous in this slightly ramshackle ‘80s way.
Adam: If the Henson company want to make an MMO RPG out of this, that would be great.
Ren: Open World —
Adam: Like how The Neverhood was a claymation game, this would be a stop motion puppets game. So the same graphics as the game but an open world online roleplaying game .
Ren: Oh yeah, I’d spend some time there.
Adam: I don’t know if I have that much more to say about it really!
Ren: I don’t think I do either!
Adam: I don’t think it’s quite the iconic film that Labyrinth is. Possibly because of the lack of a singular antagonist maybe. Obviously Labyrinth has Bowie. And Labyrinth also feels more episodic, we move on this journey between these recognisable iconic characters, whereas I think The Dark Crystal mostly feels like much of a muchness.
There are some set pieces and some scary moments, but generally it’s the world and the character designs that stick in my mind, rather than individual characters.
Ren: Maybe if it had been written by Alan Garner it would have been a stone cold classic.
Adam: But I imagine there are certain kids, certain tie-dye t-shirt wearing kids in the late ‘80s who must have adored this. I feel like it’s a film that must be perfect for a certain kind of hippy kid.
But yeah, I liked it. It’s kind of cute in a weird way, even though it’s pretty gloopy and disgusting.
Ren: It’s not really children’s horror, but it’s a pretty specific example of dark fantasy that I think is worth watching.
Adam: Yes, so if you’re listening and host a dark fantasy podcast you should definitely be covering this.
Should we have a goodbye message from toothy?
(Squeaky tormented tooth voice) Bye bye everyone, don’t leave your teeth on the shelf and don’t let your gums bleed!
Ren: See you next time spooky kids!
Adam: (toothily) bye… bye…
- Adam has a recurring hand-puppet named Bappy, a burger bun with eyes drawn on.