“The Dark Crystal” remains horrifying

TMN film critic Gordon McPherson gives “The Dark Crystal” 4 and a half out of 5 dark crystals.

Eons ago, I vividly remember watching Jim Henson’s grim puppet epic “The Dark Crystal” in my school’s after-school program. I was completely, utterly terrified, as I was only in the first grade. In fact, the film gave me nightmares for years. 

The villainous Skeksis, anthropomorphized rat-flamingo hybrids, disturb me to this day more than, well, anything I’ve encountered since — with the exception of the decomposing bathtub woman from “The Shining.”  

With the highly anticipated release of Netflix’s “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” it seemed fitting to revisit my childhood trauma with the 1982 original.

I’m happy to report that the original “Dark Crystal” holds up surprisingly well, and the Skeksis remain flat-out creepy. The film is also extremely dark and uncompromising. It’s not exactly for young children (ahem), contrary to what Henson himself, the creator of The Muppets, believed. I suppose the film primes viewers for the harshness and cruelty of the real world in 2019. Poor, poor Podlings. Nobody deserves to have their “essence” drained.

While the world of “The Dark Crystal” is rich with lore, hopefully explored further in the Netflix series, the film follows a relatively standard “Chosen One” prophecy arc. A thousand years ago on the bizarre fantasy planet of Thra, the Dark Crystal — a power source that maintained peace and harmony on the planet — was cracked. This left the planet’s idiosyncratic inhabitants in turmoil and created the Skeksis, who rule Thra with an iron fist, and their polar opposites, the Mystics. Jen, a young Gelfling — a semi-humanoid race previously decimated by the Skeksis — is prophesied to find the broken shard and return Thra to its previous glory. Along the way, Jen meets another Gelfling named Kira and her grotesque puffball pet named Fizzgig, and the trio embark on a race against time to fulfill the prophecy and ensure an end to the brutal Skeksis rule.

Quite a mouthful. Indeed, “The Dark Crystal” is such an imaginative film that it nearly defies description. The puppetry on display — pain-stakingly crafted over the course of five years — is unlike anything viewers have seen before. Cutesy Star Wars characters these are not. 

From the first scene on, Henson relishes in nightmarish imagery. A scene involving the Skeksis eating dinner stands out as particularly nausea-inducing. 

While the film leaves viewers uneasy from start to finish — even the friendly characters are somewhat hideous looking — there’s also breathtaking beauty in the film’s particular brand of twisted. From a living, breathing forest populated by creative creepy-crawlies to a slimy, cavernous fortress where the Skeksis reside, “The Dark Crystal” surprises viewers, visually at least, around every corner.

Where the film disappoints, however, is with the central character. While Jen is a likable enough protagonist, he struggles to put two and two together at multiple points throughout the film. Henson wants young children to be able to follow along, after all, but I was left irritated.

A few plot conveniences also momentarily broke my immersion, but the strengths of “The Dark Crystal” far outweigh the film’s weaknesses.

Whether or not viewers are terrified with “The Dark Crystal,” the craftsmanship on display is impossible to overlook. Watch this film, watch the final trailer for the Netflix series and get hyped.