We hadn’t intended to watch The Dark Crystal. We’d been looking for The Neverending Story, or possibly something with monkeys, to watch for an impromptu Family Movie Night, but Netflix Streaming was, once again, failing us. So we picked the weird-but-technically-family-appropriate 1982 fantasy film, The Dark Crystal.
My daughters were dubious.
“What is this?” asked Thing Two, in the same tone of voice she uses when she finds something on her supper plate outside the regulation nuggets and noodles.
“It’s cool,” I said. “It’s got adventure, and magic. And puppets.”
“This looks seriously creepy,” said Thing One. At ten, she recognizes creepy when she sees it.
Thing One is right. The Dark Crystal is a seriously creepy-looking movie:
- The vulturous, skeletal Skeksies are pure nightmare fuel, and could only be more horrifying if you gave them clown noses and a key to your house.
- The giant beetle-like Garthim are, well, giant freaking beetles that can apparently smash through any wall like hideous multi-legged Kool-Aid men.
- Even our alleged hero Jen (who is, by his own admission, not very good at his job), is an early settler of the uncanny valley: his movements say he’s human, but his weird muppet-goat face says he’s definitely not.
Thing Two dealt with this tidal wave of creepiness by wandering into another corner of the room, turning her back to the TV, and firing up some game apps on her mother’s Kindle Fire.
Her older sister stuck with it. “This is really creeping me out,” she said. “But I can’t stop watching.”
Lessons of the Dark Crystal
After thinking about it, I realized the movie’s real problem is not that it’s creepy, but that it’s inaccessible.
- It starts with two minutes of voice-over explaining the background, while we’re shown images of a weird, alien landscape.
- The first scene with actual characters in it features the Skeksis getting crystal-powered energy beams blasted into their eyes. This is apparently a good thing.
- We don’t even meet our hero (the closest thing the movie has to a relatable human character) until ten minutes into the movie, after having our minds blown and eyes seared by Jim Henson’s circus of animatronic horrors.
It’s okay if your story and world are creepy or weird. But you need to transition to that space from the mundane world. Don’t throw the audience into the deep end. Lead them gently down the stairs at the shallow end of the pool, giving them time to adjust and become immersed.
Or, to abuse a different metaphor, don’t smash them through the wall like a Kool-Aid man, but usher them through a door in the form of a relatable character or situation. Your audience will thank you for it. And your story’s wall will remain more structurally-sound.