Just from the DVD cover you can tell The Dark Crystal is obviously not a movie about ponies and rainbows. Jim Henson’s 1982 venture into dark fantasy, which first crawled into theaters 35 years ago today, journeys to a land of shadows, sorcery, prophecies, and twisted creatures that look like some vulture-dinosaur hybrid.
Watch The Dark Crystal once—that half-dazed late-night type of watching—and you may go to bed vaguely disturbed by all those gnarly hands and strange noises. Now watch it again, and really watch. If imminent death is not leering in your face every other second, it’s still stalking you. Things that aren’t supposed to be alive could trample your bones. You could have your very life essence drained until you both look and feel mummified. Danger is the only thing looming in the future, whether you see it in a reflecting pool or the Crystal itself. None of these ghastly creatures and phenomena would ever have even come into being if it weren't for the powerful and often dreadful magic that overshadows the land of Thra.
Before the biting fairies and goblins of Labyrinth took you through dangers untold and hardships unknown, it was the unearthly forces in The Dark Crystal that scared the essence out of you, however much you tried to convince yourself the Skeksis were only puppets. Dare to follow the Gelflings into the Castle of the Crystal to witness 7 times that magic should really freak you out.
The Skeksi Ceremony of the Sun
Among the Skesis’ metaphysically barbaric rituals is the Ceremony of the Sun, which involves standing in the Sacred Chamber and letting the Crystal absorb an immense amount of sunlight, filtering out radiation in pink beams which supposedly reach their brains while gazing emptily into eternity. No wonder these parasites are almost a thousand years old. Stealing sunlight recharges them and extends their wretched lives at the cost of turning Thra into a desolate wasteland, which doesn’t really matter to them so long as they keep getting uglier and uglier every year. Except they haven’t quite achieved immortality if their late king can still gasp his last breath and disintegrate in bed right before their evil beady eyes. Not like they care about that either, because they’re just dying to fight over who rules next.
An eerily reflected future
You’d think reflecting pools are magical and mystical and all that—things you see fairy visions through—but this greenish water is just as murky as the uncertain skies of Thra, and the things that come out of it are hardly what anyone would want to see in their future. Unlike the images in most reflecting pools, these are bizarrely three-dimensional, and the way they appear is just as creepy, as if they were aliens emerging from some unspeakable embryonic ooze. The shard of the Crystal materializes like a menacing finger pointing towards doom. Aughra’s astro-lab appears to be a disembodied brain rising from the primordial ooze (and the prospect of visiting Aughra isn’t exactly a party invite). When this is the way you see your future, you know it’s not going to be anything to get too eager about.
The prophecy…enough said
Prophecies in themselves are creepy. Do you really want to know the future if the present is so grim? It’s even scarier when something that looks like an enormous lizard (otherwise known as a Mystic) that you either have to face almost certain death by setting off on a perilous quest or totally certain death by doing nothing, which means the Skeksis rule forever. It’s problematic when someone a thousand years ago said either a Gelfling will restore the Crystal’s lost shard by the time the three suns in the sky align in the Great Conjunction, or everything will just plunge into eternal darkness. Just going to a labyrinthine castle infested with Skesis and their minions automatically puts you at about a 90% risk of death if you don’t get your vital essence drained first. Or, you could just sit there and wait for the Conjunction and get annihilated anyway.
Aughra’s cosmic contraption
What’s worse than having a prophecy of imminent death looming over you every single day? A contraption that tells you exactly how close you are to death, even though you already know how imminent it is. At first, you might think of Aughra’s steampunk astro-thing as fascinating. Powered by magic, the brass planets and stars and other celestial objects move on their own as celestial objects move in the cosmos. It becomes more unnerving when you realize what she really uses this thing for is to eyeball how close the three suns are to the Great Conjunction, which Aughra just shrugs off as the end of the world—or the beginning. Now imagine you are said Gelfling staring at that giant metal spider full of orbs and thinking of exactly how little time you have until what could be the rebirth of the universe or a possible apocalypse.
The Skeksis don’t need genetic engineering when they can Frankenstein their own attack forces with magic. With metallic carapaces, snapping claws and way too many appendages, said creatures resemble giant horseshoe enhanced with octopus DNA and are pre-programed to bring mass destruction wherever they crawl. The Garthim stand guard like empty suits of armor until someone squawks an order at them. They only need to hear a Skeksi commanding them to shred something or swarm on some unsuspecting Podlings and they will do it without question, but what else would you expect these evil overlords to come up with? Ethics are one thing that definitely wasn’t factored into the Garthim’s creation. Magic can often create or destroy in the fantasy genre, but this is one of those times when it actually creates to destroy.
Extraction of essence
Imagine being strapped into a chair and forced to stare at a blinding red reflector while having the very essence of your being (which apparently is some sort of neon violet color) drawn from you, drop by drop, until you’re nothing but a wraith only left alive to be manipulated into slavery. The extraction process must be torture if you can judge from the victims’ glazed eyes and expressionless faces as their hair slowly turns a shocking shade of white. Think less like getting blood drawn for medical reasons and more like getting blood sucked by a vampire, because the Skeksis are energy vampires. If anything could possibly be more disturbing than watching someone get the life sucked out of them, it’s watching a greedy vulture-faced emperor drink that life like liquid immortality. Never mind that it didn't exactly work out for his predecessor.
The Crystal itself
Besides the fact that the Dark Crystal is a hulking purple piece of rock over a smoking fire pit, just think about this: breaking it was what caused those ghostly urSkeks (the things at the end that could pass for ghosts of trees) to split into the two opposite species during the last Great Conjunction. The Skeskis personified the greedy and selfish part while the Mystics plodded along as the more benevolent half. That explains the mysterious emergence of those two species when the crystal cracked. Without the Skesis, there would have never been the massacre and enslavement of so many innocent creatures while the prophets just sat there and did nothing except bellow those weird summoning noises. The Crystal of Truth that the Dark Crystal morphs into is much more radiant and a little less unnerving—just don’t break it.