Name the three most upsetting moments of your childhood. We’ll start: finding out the truth about Santa Claus, certain episodes of Barney, and everything in The Dark Crystal.
The 1982 Jim Henson classic is one of the most schismatic movies of all time. Viewers were either deeply scarred by the life-like puppets, or they found the movie to be a pleasant fantasy experience. Let’s be real, though. Whoever ended up in the second category is cut from a different (read: inhuman) cloth. The Dark Crystal was engineered to be an uncomfortable ride. Sure, the puppetry may be state of the art, but that only contributed to the creep factor that Jim Henson instilled in a generation of kids.
Marketed as a movie from the “brilliant minds” behind The Muppets, this twisted adventure movie was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When the parents went out for date night, The Dark Crystal got popped into VHS players and burned into the brains of children around the world.
Without further ado, here are 15 Reasons Why The Dark Crystal Is the Scariest Movie Ever:
15. The Entire Premise
If you come to The Dark Crystal expecting Kermit the Frog in a fantasy setting, you’re in for a surprise. In its purest form, this story by Jim Henson tells of an ancient planet that was thrust into an apocalyptic struggle for racial superiority. When the magical crystal of Thra was cracked, it lost an invaluable “shard.” In its wake arose the Mystics, a race of brontosaurus-looking wizards and the Skeksis, buzzard beasts bent on killing everyone that doesn’t look like them.
Enter Jen, the creepy and androgynous “Gelfling” who is tasked with retrieving the shard and defeating the racist Skeksis. Elf-boy Jen has a ticking clock, however, and should the planet’s three suns align before he can complete his mission, the Skeksis will be granted eternal rule while everyone else perishes. That’s the Sparknotes version. As it goes on, the story becomes an increasingly twisted adventure from the makers of Miss Piggy.
14. Everything About Jen
Jen is the embodiment of the “Uncanny Valley” theory. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori first coined the phrase in writing about robots that looked creepy despite their nearly human appearance. The “valley” he describes is the literal gap that separates the aesthetics of zombies, dolls, and puppets from humans, thus leaving an indescribable sense of dread and mistrust in viewers.
Jen is firmly in the uncanny valley. Though more lifelike than anything in The Muppets, the protagonist of The Dark Crystal looks dead behind the eyes. His expressionless face and beady eyes are like lackluster video game CGI or Robert Zemeckis’ disturbing adaptation of The Polar Express. Though many online commentators jokingly call Jen a dwarf version of Steven Tyler, he looks and moves more like a reanimated corpse. That’s partially because the Jen doll is literally resting atop the shoulders of puppeteers, but it’s mostly because his face is the stuff of nightmares. The only thing harder to stomach than Jen is this bizarre fan film adaptation of The Dark Crystal.
13. When Kira Got Stabbed
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve probably already seen The Dark Crystal. If not, we’d like to preserve your moviegoing experience (and the terror that accompanies it) by offering a friendly spoiler warning.
You may recall watching a trailer for The Dark Crystal on VHS. In that advertisement, the thrilling music was looped over the narrator describing the movie as “a wonder-filled fantasy adventure.” This isn’t exactly untrue, but in an attempt to increase the movie’s viewership, the advertising team forgot to warn children that the second lead gets straight up stabbed at the end of the movie. In the climactic scenes of the film, Kira, the porcelain doll-like love interest, makes a heroic lunge to grab the shard from the Skeksis. Though her flying descent into the scene is also alarming, we can forgive it for her sacrifice (and also Fizzgig’s, the pet who gets thrown into a fiery pit of doom). Just after Kira tosses the crystal to Jen, a Skeksis whips out a knife and plunges into her back like a John Carpenter movie.
12. Because The Heroes Are Creepier Than The Villains
Jen and Kira are the most consistently unsettling aspect of The Dark Crystal. They’re the heroes and lovers who essentially become the Frodo and Sam of the story. Without them, all hope is lost. Yet, as much as we want to see them succeed, they’re about as easy to look at as an army of marionettes in a dark room. Though the Skeksis are truly hideous beasts, we know they’re the villains. We’re not supposed to like them, but to be frank, they mostly look like over-sized vultures decked out in bling. We can handle that.
Kira and Jen are a whole other story. So much of their communication is nonverbal, like they have a secret code only they and Jim Henson understand. They even have a disturbing, minute-long song where Kira sings and Jen plays the flute without even blinking his eyes. If there’s music in the uncanny valley, that’s what it sounds like.
11. The Mystics on the Move
Few things in The Dark Crystal are easy to look at, but The Mystics are among the most tolerable. Of all the creatures in Jim Henson’s dark fantasy, these characters look the most like Muppets. Until they open their mouths, that is. Like a cut-scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, these cursed wizards band together to sing a remarkably intense Gregorian chant. Their tune is designed to summon Jen, the only one who can help restore order in their world.
Though you only need to hear that song once, it’s the movement of the Mystics that is easily the most disturbing. These four-armed dinosaur Muppets have a lot of skin in the game. Though they’ve told Jen the barebones reason for retrieving the shard, they actually want to protect their dying race from extinction. Given their lives are at stake, they make the move from their home turf to the Castle in which the Dark Crystal is housed. Unfortunately, the Mystics move at less than 2 MPH and are repeatedly shown sauntering through the desert like C-3PO without the humor. Somehow, the battalion of wandering Mystics shuffling through sand is surprisingly creepy.
10. Augra the Demon
Jim Henson once marveled at the puppet of Aughra and mused that she was so tremendously ugly that she almost seemed beautiful. Indeed, this creature is an amalgamation of genders and races across centuries in the world of Thra. Her face is deeply shriveled and shrunken, with a stone submerged into her forehead. She has ram’s horns jutting above her ears, a mane of untamed gray hair sprouting everywhere, and a missing eye from watching the brightness of the first “Great Conjunction.”
The legendary Frank Oz was her puppeteer, and indeed, Aughra appears like a particularly cantankerous version of Yoda. Unafraid of the Skeksis, she curses them openly and yells so ferociously that even their most terrifying leaders fear her wrath. She sounds like a broken record of the booing witch from The Princess Bride. Aughra fits right into the world of The Dark Crystal, and she is a contributing factor to the many nightmares of children and adults alike.
9. Podling Mind Draining
You can’t kill Podlings. Shaped like the Pillsbury dough boy, the “Pod People” are the most innocent creatures on all of Thra. They exist exclusively to party, and when Jen and Kira arrive at their home, even the uncanny valley couple seems to have a good time.
Too bad Jim Henson created the Podlings purely to destroy them in the most grotesque of ways. If you saw The Dark Crystal in your youth, the “mind draining” sequence is probably the one that scared you the most. Imagine taking Tiny Tim from The Muppets Christmas Carol, strapping him to a chair, and literally sucking the brain power out of him until his eyes glowed white. So dramatic are these sequences that Henson lets you watch the Podling’s face devolve into a pulp as a mystery liquid moves from his arms, down a tube, and into a cryptic vial. That’s bad enough, but Henson goes a step further and actually shows a Skeksis drink the Podling’s life force like it’s $1 Fireball night at the local tavern.
8. Every Sound in the Movie
Despite all of his scare tactics in The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson remains a genius. He not only made The Muppets an international sensation, but he made a puppet-driven horror movie that scared the living hell out of an entire generation of young adults. Though nothing can rival the images in his film, the large vocabulary of sounds comes close. Take a listen to the opening moments of the movie, which literally sound like the gates of hell have been opened.
Then there’s Fizzgig, who’s famous for basically screaming like a lion after taking down a gazelle. The Mystics have their own choral hymns, the Skeksis have their demon language (in the original cut), Kira sings like a levitating ghost, Aughra barks like a witch, Chamberlain whimpers like a creep, and the list goes on. If you’re sensitive to sounds, then don’t watch or listen to The Dark Crystal before bed. These sounds aren’t easily shaken.
7. When The Emperor’s Face Caved In
Long before Jim Henson allowed his cute little Podlings to get turned into vegetables, he showcased one of the most dramatic death scenes of all time. That’s no exaggeration. Near the beginning of The Dark Crystal, the leader of the Skeksis breathes his last before his team of advisors and friends (if you can call them that).
The scene is grim. The Skeksis Chamberlain and General approach the Emperor’s bedside and find him emaciated, breathing heavily, and almost entirely unconscious. The General orders everyone to kneel at his bedside as the Emperor gets a surge of energy before reaching the undiscovered country. He screams at his team of greedy politicos, “Back! Back! I am still the emperor!” Then the asphyxiation hits him, and we watch the Emperor gasp for air as his eyes roll back in his head. Death has won. Then, Henson takes things a step further and makes a nod to the Nazi face-melting scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Without cutting away, the Emperor’s face caves in and literally disintegrates into dust. Goodnight, Jim Bob!
6. Jim Henson Deliberately Sought to Scare Children
Jim Henson believed that a child’s diet should consist of food, puppets, and fear. Indeed, the bearded artistic genius was convinced that children should be exposed to scary things, like the Grimm fairy tales that so heavily inspired The Dark Crystal. Henson allegedly believed that children wanted to be scared, and this “fact” gave him creative license to forever shape the imagination of his young audience.
The origins of Henson’s story are even more troublesome. In the late 1970s, he and his daughter were stranded at a New York hotel after snowstorms grounded their flight. Making lemons out of lemonade, they took inspiration from the desolate wilderness of snowfall and began envisioning the murky world that would later become The Dark Crystal. Though his personal and professional reputation is sterling, it’s clear that Jim Henson sought to not only test the boundaries of his puppets, but also of the hearts and minds of children.
5. It Got Banned in Iran
Though the mystical elements in The Dark Crystal derive from an unnamed and fictional religion, the movie possesses a strong spiritual dynamic. Given the Skeksis and the Mystics were once a unified entity, and Jen is thrust into the center of a prophecy, the entire plot revolves around metaphysical concepts of existence, death, and fate (though these themes are admittedly hard to notice when you’re in a state of pure terror).
This did not set well in countries across the Middle East, particularly in Iran. Due to the questionable imagery of the Mystics and the faith they practiced, The Dark Crystal got a full-stop ban in the country. You’d think the treatment of the Podlings would be the first red flag, but apparently, the “ceremonial” aspects of the film were its undoing. Though English versions of the film didn’t last a day in Iran, the decree to ban the movie extended even to Arabic and Farsi-dubbed copies which never made it past the Office of Censorship.
They might be beautiful to some, but Landstriders are like gigantic moths on stilts. Their faces look like walruses, their wings like steroidal doves, and their legs like brittle giraffes. It’s a hellacious combination, and when you see Kira and Jen riding atop them, it’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying.
Though The Dark Crystal does an impeccable job of convincing you these puppets are autonomous, the Landstriders are perhaps the most effective designs of all. They run at high speeds and look like truly untamed creatures of the wild. This did not sit well with certain viewers. Consider some YouTube comments about Landstriders: “Imagine waking up in this world one day. I would jump off the nearest high place I could find.” While some comments are a bit dramatic, others are more honest: “These things terrified me beyond reason when I was younger. They still creep me out.” And then there are the those who cannot conceal their anguish whatsoever: “This movie f***** me up as a kid.” There appears to be a consensus on Landstriders.
3. The Skeksis Feast
From Denethor’s dinner in The Return of the King to The Red Wedding in Game of Thrones, literary feasts and celebrations often serve as a counterpoint to civil society. There’s something villainous about a group of bureaucrats eating like animals. Following this tradition, Jim Henson dedicated three whole minutes of The Dark Crystal to showcasing the Skeksis satiating their despicable hunger. Like a feast out of Caligula, the bestial buzzards are served by brainless Podlings and chomp down on all manner of nasty food. The scene has no dialogue for the first minute, just the endless chomping, slurping, and burping of the Skeksis horde.
These vile creatures even eat still-living animals, dipping them in unidentified liquids and ripping out their insides for added effect. Other living rodents are brought in by the basket then released atop the banquet tables, requiring the Skeksis to catch the scurrying animals with their bare hands.
2. Chamberlain’s Exile
After the unforgettable death of The Emperor, the Skeksis sought a new leader. Now more competitive than ever, The General and The Chamberlain make a claim to the throne. Unable to reach a peaceful conclusion, the governing body of the Skeksis order a “Trial by Stone.” This ancient tradition sees the warring parties armed with scythes and tasked with slicing apart an obelisk. The first to complete the challenge becomes the successor to the Emperor.
When The Chamberlain loses his bid, however, he becomes an instant pariah. The other Skeksis decree his banishment from the Castle and approach him like vultures on a corpse. They strip him of his clothes and beat him into submission. Though the audience can’t side with The Chamberlain’s greedy political ambitions, he instantly becomes a sympathetic character as his own kind treats him like scum. His ostracizing is upsetting, particularly with the images of him covering his naked body while getting heckled by the Skeksis.
1. The Original Cut Was Even Darker
If it weren’t for test screenings, The Dark Crystal would have been even more untamed. In its original state, the movie had no narration, very little English dialogue, and the Skeksis spoke exclusively through shrieks, grunts, and groans. Jim Henson allegedly shaved a half hour off the movie after test audiences complained about understanding almost nothing in the film. Indeed, the original cut dropped audiences into Thra without explaining anything at all.
In the decades to follow, loyal fans of the film tracked down the presumably lost footage and reassembled into a “Director’s Cut.” Considering it played entirely in black and white, this version of The Dark Crystal was literally the darkest yet. Though it can be found through some savvy Internet sleuthing, be warned: those who have seen the original version of the film claim it’s far scarier than the theatrical release. And we all know how that one worked out.
What scenes from The Dark Crystal scared you most? Let us know in the comments!