Legends and Labyrinths

As a kid, I remember the thrill of clicking on the TV in my bedroom after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. I turned the volume down low, so low anyone in the hallway outside my room wouldn’t hear it, even if they pressed their ear to the door. Because I took such great precautions to avoid getting caught watching movies past my bedtime, I had to lean toward the TV and remain still to hear the sound, which often resulted in a crink in my neck. I suffered many a sleepy morning, but it was worth it to watch whatever I wanted, alone in my room.

I always found something to watch, usually movies TV stations wouldn’t play during daytime peak hours but were okay with playing in the dead of night. They didn’t expect anyone to be watching at that time. But I was.

Legend movie poster

One of the movies I remember distinctly is one of Tom Cruise’s early films, a dark fairy tale directed by Ridley Scott called Legend. As a kid, I loved fairy tales. Not the sweet and bubbly ones where everyone gets married, and evil gets what’s coming to it. I read those, sure, but I also read the versions where body parts are hacked off, marriages are not always happy, and mermaids die. So Legend, with its terrifying portrayal of evil, fit neatly into my personal fairy tale canon.

The plot is rather simple: Jack, an innocent wood-dweller and presumably the very first animal whisperer, loves the fair and noble Princess Lily. To show her his devotion, he takes her to see the unicorns, the physical embodiment of the Light, all that is good and pure in the world. Lily is enchanted by the unicorns and moves close to touch one. At that very moment, a demon from the underworld shoots the unicorn with a poison dart, then cuts off its horn. As a result, darkness descends upon the valley. The remaining unicorn and Lily are herded into the underworld, where Darkness (see: the Devil) seeks to kill the last of the unicorns to rid the world of goodness—and seduce Lily. Jack, with the help of woodland fairy friends, must overcome great obstacles and battle Darkness to reinstate the natural balance between good and evil and save the woman he loves.

I adored this film as a kid. Every time I came across it late at night, flipping through stations, I’d always watch it. I was just as enchanted with the movie as Lily was with those unicorns.

I realize now, as an adult, my attraction to Legend had everything to do with seeing the fantastical beings I’d imagined in my head on the silver screen. They were given life and magic. And while I watched these characters, I became a part of their story, a part of their world. And there is nothing better than that sort of experience for a burgeoning storyteller.

When David Bowie died from cancer last month, my friend, Nikki, and I immediately scheduled a Labyrinth viewing party. By party, I mean the two of us with a bottle of wine and Thai food.

LabyrinthFor many of our generation, the tale of a baby brother stolen from Sarah (played by an incredibly young Jennifer Connelly) by Goblin King Jareth (Bowie) in a bizarre showing of … love? … is a seminal piece of our childhood. We remember the wonder (or fright) we experienced watching Jim Henson’s puppets flit across the screen. We remember the music, catchy tunes that most of us can sing verbatim if asked to do so. We most definitely remember Bowie’s glittery, rock star hair, tight pants and riding boots, and strange allure. We weren’t supposed to like him because he was a villain, and yet …

I tried to watch Labyrinth with my fiancé, but the film was lost on him. He never saw Labyrinth as a kid, and though he was open and understood it was a dated film, it simply didn’t work for him. All he saw were David Bowie music videos, awful dialogue (this part is true), and a fun but not altogether special assemblage of characters.

I realized then that watching movies as a child is so very different than watching movies as an adult. The childhood wonder of seeing something new cements films and worlds and characters in our imaginations as precious gems, remembrances of key moments of childhood – possibility, awe, and love. That nostalgia is what allows us to re-watch films that, in other circumstances, we’d deem absolutely horrid.

LegendLast night, I invited Nikki over to watch Legend with me, and I was nervous. Nikki hadn’t seen Legend before, and it had been a good 18 or so years since I’d seen it. I remembered it with love, but would it hold up? And would I be forcing my friend to watch something that didn’t play a role in her childhood and, thus, would just be terrible?

At the end of the night, Nikki and I had discovered a few basic truths about Legend:

Legend is Labyrinth’s big sister. The scandalous one. The one who takes great pleasure in scaring the bejesus out of you. They share a lot of the same thematics: puppetry, adventure, the overall goal to win over evil – but Legend presents it in a much more grownup way. This film boasts a PG rating, but it was created at a time when the PG-13 rating was just gaining traction, and I’m sure movie studios were sorting out what qualifies as shocking. In my opinion, Legend is pretty shocking. The monsters, demons, and Darkness (again, the Devil—played wonderfully by Tim Curry, still slightly recognizable beneath a crazy makeup job) are terrifying. Nikki and I thought we’d have nightmares.

Tom CruiseTom Cruise’s legs should enjoy their own billing. When we first meet Tom Cruise’s character, Jack, he drops out of a tree wearing a Peter Pan-meets-Tarzan ensemble and lands in a deep squat. It’s the kind of thing I do in yoga classes. From there on out, Jack’s legs are always on display, and he’s often lunging and crouching and flexing. Even when Jack discovers an outfit of gold armor, its coverage ends at his upper thigh, gladiator style. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the gams, and Tom must’ve built tremendous strength during filming.

A lot of people lambast this movie. And I get it. The dialogue, like Labyrinth’s, is not always cohesive with the action. Sometimes, it’s just strange … and bad. Tom didn’t have his acting chops firmly in place at this time; he was very green. There are holes in the plot, and our suspension of disbelief can only stretch so far. But there are a lot of things this film gets right. The cinematography is gorgeous (and won quite a few awards after Legend’s release). The set designers truly outdid themselves in creating the contradiction of lush, beautiful woodlands and the harrowing halls and twisted corridors of, well, hell. The puppetry is unreal (there’s a witch in a swamp that is the epitome of terrifying), the dubbing is done rather well, and we have to remember this was a time when CGI was not the immediate solution. There are definitely special effects at play in this film, but by and large, a lot of it is practical. It’s an undertaking and quite the accomplishment.

Tim CurryAnd I’d be remiss to not acknowledge the incredible talent that is Tim Curry as Darkness. He’s deplorable but elegant. He’s charming and manipulative in the way that the most wonderful villains are (in my opinion). Then again, Tim Curry can really do no wrong.

All in all, the night was a success. I introduced Nikki to a cult classic and a very specific piece of my childhood. And me? I was cozied up under my comforter again, watching something I knew I shouldn’t be. It was a fun throwback.

And today, thinking and writing about Legend, I can’t help but smile, which only goes to prove my hypothesis: those first moments of magic, mystery, horror, and wonder that we experience as kids will remain with us forever.

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