Bringing Skeksis back: Why the Dark Crystal's villains are worth revisiting

Imagine you're a small child settling into a seat at your local multiplex to see a PG-rated fantasy movie from the creator of two of your favorite TV shows. You're expecting a fairy tale full of cute, furry creatures and pointy-eared, elf-like heroes ... but one of the first images that falls on your wide eyes is a room full of hunched, withered, evil-eyed beasts who proceed, throughout the movie's running time, to hiss at each other in a guttural tongue, mercilessly slaughter lesser beings and drool out their entrails, and generally terrorize the darker recesses of your impressionable young psyche.

These were The Dark Crystal's Skeksis, and to my mind they rank among some of the better villains the genre has ever given us, compelling and creepy in equal measure. With Syfy's Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge set to uncork a Skeksis-themed contest in its latest episode tonight, this seemed like a good opportunity to offer up an ode to what I see as an unfairly overlooked entry in the pantheon of great genre movie villains.

Why are the Skeksis worth remembering? Let me count the ways ...

They were truly frightening: We live in an age when fairy tale and myth serve as the basis for much of mainstream entertainment, but -- with a few notable exceptions -- a lot of the muck has been cleared out in the refinement process, leaving us with sanitized, only vaguely threatening bad guys. Old-school legends, even stories aimed at children, were often full of menace and body horror, and Jim Henson knew it when he went to craft his own fantasy world. Anatomically, the Skeksis are rife with weird angles, unsettling protrusions and the occasional unidentifiable fluid. They gulp down the entrails of smaller animals, letting bits fall from their beaks as they gorge. They will straight-up murder you and your entire family, and not in a clean way. They had an edge that is missing in much of modern villainy, because Jim Henson knew that there are times when children should be scared ... and, in the Skeksis, he created the perfect vehicle for that philosophy.

They were utterly alien: When he first shot The Dark Crystal, Henson wanted the Skeksis to speak in a twisted fictional language, accompanied by English subtitles. This was changed due to test audience reactions, but it helps drive home the other-ness Henson wanted out of his villains here. Not quite bird and not quite reptile, the Skeksis don't make a lot of sense to the eye, and our first glimpse of them finds them engaged in some sort of unexplained (at the time) communion with the titular artifact that sets them up as in touch with some power that we can't understand. Their dress, their manner of speech and even the way they collapse in on themselves when they die all ring out as just plain wrong for this world ... which is a feeling explained later, when their arcane origin is fully explored.

But they were familiar: Fairy-tale villains are often used to embody the darker impulses found inside us all, and The Dark Crystal makes no bones about this with its casting of the Skeksis as the "dark half" of the UrSkek race that split the titular crystal. We're meant to recoil at the greed, cowardice and low cunning exhibited by these cruel monsters, but we're meant to see a bit of ourselves in them, too, in their avarice and terror in the face of the unknown and their desire to control that which can't be controlled. And that works, because ...

They were vulnerable: Perhaps the most telling Skeksis scene in the entire film is the moment when the Chamberlain is stripped of his robes and exiled from the Castle of the Crystal. What's revealed is an emaciated, pathetic collection of bones, oddly assembled and barely held together; a far cry from something that we've seen as horrific and menacing up to this point in the film. It serves as a powerful reminder that the Skeksis are a dying, frightened race (which is something that's easy to forget when you're watching them suck Podling souls out through their eyeballs), and that even the scariest forces are often built on hollow foundations.

It's a testament to the power of Jim Henson's imagination that the Skeksis, and the world they inhabited in The Dark Crystal, have left such a profound impression on genre fans of a certain age, yours truly included. Thirty-two years and multiple advances in movie FX technology later, their twisted and tormented forms still resonate, and I can only hope that their inclusion in Syfy's latest reality competition show convinces a whole new audience of their deserved place in the genre's villainous vanguard.

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