I freakin’ love The Dark Crystal! Let’s watch it! After all that exposition, it’s time to have some fun, and by “fun” I mean “unimaginable Skeksis horror.” 9:46-13:00 on the Blu-ray.
Time for another establishing shot of the castle, much like the beginning the film. This time, I noticed a pattern. When lightning flashes in the sky, it’s followed by a similar electrical flash from the cracks in the ground around the castle. Is the castle drawing power from the lightning, like something out of Frankenstein? It’s possible, as one of the Skeksis is a mad scientist.
Inside, we get a long shot of a hallway, where a Skeksis emerges from a doorway and walks toward us. What the heck is that huge stick-figure sculpture on the wall? I thought for sure this thing would be featured in The World of the Dark Crystal book, because it has descriptions of all the symbols in the backgrounds, but no luck. The Skeksis we see seems to be breathing heavily as he walks. A second Skeksis darts out in front of him and for the first time we hear… the whimper.
The two Skeksis circle one another, eyeing each other like two wild animals. The bigger one, the one we saw first, is the General. The second, the one making the funny noise, is of course the Chamberlain. These two are the main villains throughout the film, with the Chamberlain getting the most screen time. The canon tells us that the Chamberlain’s name is SkekSil, and the General is SkekUng, but these names aren’t used on screen. After staring each other down, the two Skeksis then merely turn and march side by side down the hallway. Interestingly, this bit with them circling each other isn’t in the screenplay, which has the scene beginning with the two of them just walking down the hall. I think this exchange says a lot about the Skeksis. They hate each other, but they have their formalities, so although circling like animals, they keep their rage in check and do not openly attack each other.
The General breaks the tension by saying, “I hate your whimper.” The Chamberlain does the whimper again, perhaps intentionally to mess with his opponent. We fade to not much later, as the two reach their destination at the end of the hall, with the Chamberlain still whimpering. OK, what’s the deal with this whimper? Like I’ve said before, sorting out which Skeksis is which can be maddening. They each have their individual looks and personalities, which is great, but if I were to ask you to point out which one is, say, the Ornamentalist, you’d have to go to the internet and then go through the Skeksis scenes freeze-frame-by-freeze-frame to spot him. The Chamberlain is the most important Skeksis to the story, so the filmmakers have made it perfectly clear which one he is – he’s the one always making that whimper. Every time we hear the whimper, we know exactly which Skeksis we’re dealing with. A first-time viewer won’t know he’s SkekSil, and might not even get that he’s the Chamberlain, but the whimper nonetheless identifies him as “that one guy.” Also, the whimper is funny! Let’s never forget that The Dark Crystal has a sense of humor.
The General tells the Chamberlain to be quiet as they enter a room full of Skeksis. I could go on and on about all the details of the Skeksis’ clothes, but, interestingly, it appears that the general is wearing a piece of crystal around his neck. Or maybe it’s a bird’s beak. Hard to tell. The Skeksis are gathered around a bed, where a frail, withered Skeksis is under the covers. Another Skeksis tells the Chamberlain, “He is not dead yet.” (The first person to make a Monty Python reference gets slapped.) Based on the opening narration from the first scene, we can safely conclude the one in bed is the dying emperor. The General commands the others to bow, which they do. All except the Chamberlain, who reaches for the emperor’s scepter. The emperor springs to life and hisses “Mine!” at the Chamberlain.
Stuff of nightmares: People often describe The Dark Crystal as “scary,” and I can totally see that. Images like the dying emperor snarling at the Chamberlain and then coughing and hacking on his deathbed are like something pulled straight from a very unpleasant dream.
In case we weren’t disturbed enough, the camera pushes in for a tight close-up on the emperor, as he orders the others back and, with his dying breath, espouses, “I am still emperor.” Only to wheeze, choke and finally die. The Chamberlain whimpers again, and the nightmare isn’t over yet, because now we get a close-up of the emperor’s dead face crumbling into flaky dust. His whole body collapses in this fashion, and all the Skeksis lean in close. They all exchange looks with each other, as if to say, “Now what do we do?”
About the emperor: The tie-in fiction informs us his name is SkekSo. The World of the Dark Crystal says that he was once great, but that his greatness faded over time. He’s a main character in the Legends of the Dark Crystal manga, where we see all the other Skeksis vying for his loyalty, and him being suspicious of them all. He’s especially fond of SkekLach, an armored warrior Skeksis who appears in the manga but not in the movie. The emperor’s scepter has a claw shape at the top, which World of the Dark Crystal says is a symbol of Skeksis aggression.
We cut right back to where we left Jen and the Mystics’ Master at the end of the previous scene, showing that no time has passed between then and now. Jen says in voiceover, “I’ll go where you send me, though I barely understand.” The music gets really sad here, as the Master dies, fading away into nothingness with the help of some twinkling purple lights. His cloak falls around him not unlike the Skeksis emperor’s bedsheets. Here we see how the Mystics and the Skeksis have the ol’ “the same, but different” thing going on. When one dies, so does the other, at the same time. And yet, the Skeksis crumbles into dirt when he dies, while the Mystic ascends into light and air upon death.
How did the Master and the Emperor die? You’d think old age, but it’s here that the tie-in fiction takes off in directions not evident in the film. The canon states that the Master chose to die, to set events in motion for Jen’s quest and the ultimate healing of the whole world. Given that the Mystics are numb and set in their ways, this is an enormous sacrifice and risk on his part. The number ten, we’re told, is the number of balance, but the number nine is discord. With nine Mystics/Skeksis instead of ten, the door is now open for change – and, perhaps, the threat of chaos. So, now that there are nine and that means… stop. STOP! At this point, we’ve got to put on the brakes and ask ourselves just how much of the symbology and numerology in the tie-in fiction can enhance our enjoyment of the film, and how much is explaining stuff that never needed to be explained. I can’t answer that question. There is no answer, really. It’s something for every Dark Crystal fan to answer for his or her own self.
Next: A funeral, and a quest begins.
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