The Power & Subtext of LABYRINTH

There are a few films that I watch at least 12 times a year, and there's one film, a film that has no shortage of cult appeal and has thankfully become a family classic after its relatively poor reception upon release that never ceases to dazzle me. In fact I saw a scratched print of it on the big screen early last year and it was undoubtedly my favourite cinema experience of 2010. There was always something about certain aspects of The Muppets that scared me, as much as I love them! I distinctly remember one sketch on a VHS called 'Gonzo's Muppet Weird Stuff' that had Jim Henson and Frank Oz performing as two singing creatures utilising their own mouths turned upside down, it was terrifying! There was something disconcerting about the tunnels leading up to the Gorg's kingdom in 'Fraggle Rock'. But nothing was more scary than the initial appearance of the goblins in Henson's 1986 film Labyrinth. With a simple cut from teenage Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) telling her baby brother Toby a bedtime story to a cluster of goblins framed in a tight close-up, sat in a dark castle, a hundred childhood nightmares and an inescapable sense of paranoia was set in motion. As Sarah leaves the bedroom and the sounds of Toby's crying are silenced with the light switch we begin a harrowing hide-and-seek where an endless array of goblins scurry around the bedroom. It is, for a children's film, quite dark stuff and still has me a little wary about entering darkened rooms post-viewing. Yet in a film filled with the ludicrous, the wonderful and David Bowie, it is frightening moments like this that help cement the enduring power of Labyrinth. Perhaps the film is derided for the presence of the iconic David Bowie delivering a pantomimic performance as the villain of the piece, yet the lightness in his portrayl ("Well, laugh...") is a perfect balance to the film's numerable scary set-pieces, and, in my warped opinion, holds darker depths within the film's context. After being plunged down a pit of cracked, grey groping hands, into the dark of an oubliette and chased by a rock-grinding, razor edged machine you need a villain who's going to provide some light relief from the danger filled world of the Labyrinth! Yet beneath the surface there is another tale. Most notably the film represents pubescent Sarah leaving childhood, the world of the Labyrinth is made up of familiar storybook ideas, toys and images from within her room (catch sight of a Fiery, Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' and Escher's painting 'Relativity' in an early shot) and the film's conclusion would suggest an understanding that growing up is not a bad thing and you can keep those notions of childhood and play for when you need them. But there is further analysis to be plundered from another image found in Sarah's room. At her dressing table there are copies of 'Playbill', her mother in the film was clearly an actress who had performed in the play 'Labyrinth' that Sarah reads from at three points during the movie. Sarah is frustrated with her step-mother and one has to wonder what became of Sarah's birth mother? Are her parent's separated? Did a worse fate befall her? If they are apart then what brought about the end of their relationship? Next to the 'Playbill' in Sarah's room is a picture of her mother with a co-star, an actor who looks exactly like the Goblin King, well, he looks like David Bowie, but you get my point. For me this puts some of the exchanges between Jareth the Goblin King and Sarah into a different light, and makes the already strange 'romantic' angle even more troubling. Jareth's plea at the climax - "I ask for so little, just let me rule you and you can have everything you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave." - is eerily desperate, as is the fantasy he creates for Sarah inside the poisoned peach in which Bowie sings 'As The World Falls Down'. A heavily made-up Sarah is surrounded by masked dancers as Jareth flirtatiously leads Sarah on a game of hide and seek, before taking her in his arms for a dance. As for Jareth taking her baby brother away, I see this as an echo of his 'real' counterpart taking Sarah's mother from her. If one assumes that Bowie's character and her mother were involved I imagine that their relationship ended in tragedy with the death of Sarah's birth mother, which has exacerbated her relationship with her step-mother; much like how the motherless daughters act in many fairy tales. Nevertheless, my analysis of the film never distracts from the sheer enjoyment I get from it. My Media Studies A-Level teachers always warned me that studying films would ruin them and you'd never be able to watch a film objectively again, but I only find myself analysing a film to a detrimental extent if I'm not enjoying it. Depending on my mood I can enjoy 'Labyrinth' as just a pure, Python-esque fantasy romp with endless imagination and intelligence or I can sit there and ponder over the Freudian implications of Sarah's dreamworld! Above all 'Labyrinth' is a film that I consider one of my all time favourite movies, it seemed to haunt my steps as a child and insist on being watched. Though I never owned it on video until my late-teens it always seemed to be on television whenever I was being babysat, and then, as I grew older, if I saw it in the TV guide it was a guarantee that I would cancel any and all commitments to watch it (of course, being a young child these commitments were generally things like playing Nintendo or climbing the tree in the garden). The film also is a touchstone for my argument that practical effects are always more alive and fun than computer generated imagery, there is so much life that comes from the performance of a talented puppeteer, a soul that manages to transport itself from the arms, the movement (sometimes the whole body with larger puppets) and the choice of voice, the genuine physical interaction of the characters. One of the reasons I adore Garth Jenning's version of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' is for the use of Jim Henson puppets for the Vogons, it brings so much to the characters down to the way the light reflects off the texture of their animatronic lips. I think 'Labyrinth' is unfairly dismissed by critics as a poor cousin to 'The Dark Crystal', and though I do love Henson's all-puppet fantasy film as well, it has never captured me in quite the same way as 'Labyrinth'. Now, all together; "You remind me of the babe!" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjoYzLBp34o
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Owain Paciuszko hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.