The version of The Dark Crystal that was released in 1982 was dark and weird, especially for a kids' movie. But there was an earlier version—darker, weirder, and trippier—that didn't make it to theaters. The earlier cut didn't test well with audiences, so the film was substantially changed to appeal to a broad audience. Voiceover was added, and English dialogue was added to many scenes where the action was previously supposed to be understood through puppets' pantomime.
For the past two years an enterprising fan, 31-year-old Christopher Orgeron, has labored to reassemble that original cut of the movie. He had limited materials to work with, so there are rough edges in many places (most notably the black-and-white scenes from a VHS dub of the original cut). But looking at this version of The Dark Crystal gives us a dose of the Henson weirdness that we see in many of his early films. Whether this is better or worse than the theatrical version is debatable—but at the very least, it's a fascinating glimpse into what might have been. Here it is, and below, my interview with Orgeron.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: On Monday, January 27, 2014 the videos were removed from YouTube and the Internet Archive, at the request of the Jim Henson Company.
Q&A With Christopher Orgeron
Higgins: When you look at this cut of the movie, do you feel that this is closer to what Henson and his collaborators intended than what was released theatrically?
Orgeron: Not necessarily. That's where there's a little contention over the use of the "Director's Cut" title on my video. This edit is indeed an exact replica of an early version of the film that Henson and company showed to a test audience. In that sense alone it's a "director's cut," but I think sadly that's where the distinction ends.
There were obvious hurdles for Henson when it came time to convince the studio execs of the viability of such an ambitious film. So the changes that were made to the dialogue had to be done to help the film appeal to a wider, theater-going audience. I think it should also be noted that the performances given by the puppeteers on set were based on the lines heard in the workprint [the early cut] so in that way, this cut matches the acting better.
Higgins: How would you characterize the differences between this version and the theatrical version? Certainly it is darker, weirder, more surreal. There seems to be a parallel to me with Blade Runner (another 1982 film...) and its many cuts—it had narration and other de-complicating factors added after test screenings, but the original version has more depth. Do you agree with the Blade Runner parallel?
Orgeron: Absolutely. It was clearly a time of film-making experimentation. Late 70s and early 80s sci-fi movies are arguably some of the best that have ever been made. It's like 90s Nickelodeon. Less restriction in unexplored mediums led to some really great creativity. This version of The Dark Crystal plays out more like a sci-fi film set on a different planet than a kids' fantasy movie. The Skeksis and Gelflings seem more like extraterrestrials in a way.
The Blade Runner comparison is a fantastic analogy with similar circumstances. Another one I just discovered recently was in, oddly enough, a Frank Oz film called Little Shop of Horrors. Totally different ending where (spoiler alert!) the plant multiplies and goes on a killing rampage, destroying the entire city! These days I think the formulas for movie-making and audience reception are a little more clear and changes made after test screenings are a little less dramatic.
Higgins: What's your personal relationship with the theatrical version of The Dark Crystal? Do you remember seeing it as a kid? Did you like it?
Orgeron: This tidbit is a little shameful. I was born the same year the film was released and was a huge Henson fan as a kid but didn't really hear about The Dark Crystal until I was about 17. Roughly a year after that, I decided to buy the DVD and give it a go. My perspective while watching it was a little unusual since the film was undeniably "Henson" but my matured brain got to see a vivid and ambitious world that had somehow eluded me as a child. I loved it to death. It appealed to my childhood and early adulthood while still being brand new. I watched the DVD many times and all the deleted scenes, which made me want to find out more about this early version that was subsequently lost.
Higgins: When did you find out about the workprint? Do you know "Aikousha" [the pseudonymous person who posted a low-quality, black-and-white version of the workprint] personally?
After reading the liner notes on the DVD I was disappointed to find that this strange "early" version of the film was mostly destroyed. It seemed that the original idea Henson and Oz had was really different compared to the wide release of the film and I had a looming curiosity to see it. Around that same time I was really getting to more artistic films and began wondering if there was some surviving copy out there in the wild of this darker take on The Dark Crystal. I'd Google it every now and then but never really came up with anything, until 6 or 7 years ago (ish) when I found out about the workprint in a forum somewhere.
I found the thread well after Aikousha had posted his insights into the workprint and how he obtained it, but the site that was hosting the upload was gone and no one seemed to have a copy. I made many attempts at buying a VHS copy from a few guys to no avail, but finding out that there was indeed a living copy of this version refueled my desire to see it. I wish I could contact Aikousha to thank him for finding it in the first place but he's not easy to track down. A few years ago some torrents started popping up for it, which is where I eventually got a copy.
Higgins: Can you tell me a little about the technical process here? It looks to me like you've gotten the majority (or all) of the soundtrack from the workprint, then matched available video to that. Is that correct?
Orgeron: So if anyone is morbidly curious, I recommend finding a workprint copy and checking it out. It's a test of patience to watch. While I did very little to the black & white video clips you see in my cut, the audio was nearly unlistenable on the workprint. Most of the reason I made my edit was to show to some of my friends that really wanted to see the workprint but couldn't stand to sit through the awful quality.
The idea was to use the entire original workprint audio and then match the clean video to it, which is how it mostly went down. The audio had loads of tape hiss and noise that I pulled out and equalized. It's still very compressed, but I was happy to discover the dialogue was still intelligible after processing. I did pepper in some of the final high quality Trevor Jones score during transitional scenes for dynamic range and perspective but some of the score by Vangelis is of course different on the workprint, which I left in. [Ed. note: Vangelis was initially considered to score the film, but Jones got the job instead. Some Vangelis music is included in the workprint.]
Higgins: Do you intend to continue working on this? For instance, if someone actually had better footage to insert at various points, are you prepared to include that?
Orgeron: There are some rough little bits in the edit I intend to smooth out and I would absolutely devote the time to insert better footage. If anyone can improve the black & white footage or clean up the deleted scenes then we can get a few steps closer to restoring this piece of film history.