A version of this article appeared in The Age, April 5, 2012.
Back on the big screen for a week at the Astor, Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986) is a genuine cult movie, one that influenced the early erotic daydreams of a significant portion of Generation VHS. In a way, it's a junior version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – a frankly derivative, giddily jumbled musical fantasy set in a glam netherworld ruled by a swaggering, androgynous fallen angel.
It helped that Jareth the Goblin King was played by the pop star most associated with the idea of metamorphosis: none other than David Bowie, in blond fright wig, kabuki make-up and ridiculously tight pants. Pitted against him is Sarah, the feisty heroine played by fifteen-year-old beauty Jennifer Connelly, who petulantly gives her baby brother away to the goblins (incarnated as suitably grotesque puppets) and must face “dangers untold” in order to save him.
A blatant yet dreamlike coming-of-age allegory, Labyrinth is an anomaly in Henson's largely chaste oeuvre. Though there's an abundance of scatological imagery – Sarah's grotty gnome-like companion Hoggle (Shari Weiser) makes his first appearance urinating into a pool – the basic symbolism is conceived in Jungian rather than Freudian terms. If Jareth represents for Sarah the threat of encroaching adult sexuality, he's also a product of her imagination: “You have no power over me,” she tells him in a showdown recalling the heroine's dismissal of Freddy Krueger in the original Nightmare On Elm Street (1984).
It's not always recognised that Henson remained to the end an experimental filmmaker: even his interest in puppetry stems from a particular formal problem, a desire to visualise abstract concepts without compromising the documentary value of the image. Labyrinth pays explicit homage to fantasists from Lewis Carroll to M.C. Escher to Jean Cocteau, but its disorienting transitions also owe something to the avant-garde psychodramas of Maya Deren, which typically fabricate “impossible” spaces through editing alone. Thus the labyrinth appears to rearrange itself as Sarah moves through it – and at the very start of her quest, she travels from her bedroom to the outskirts of Jareth's kingdom via a simple reverse shot.
While space comes unstuck, time seems suspended. Basically uninterested in linear storytelling, Henson went against the wishes of his original screenwriter, Monty Python's Terry Jones, who feared that tension would dissipate if the heart of the labyrinth were revealed too soon. By cross-cutting between Sarah finding her way and Jareth lounging with his minions, the film allows us to feel that its various narrative episodes are all present at once, like the universes nestled inside one another in Henson's 1980s TV project Fraggle Rock. After all, growing up needn't mean leaving earlier stages of development behind: when the adventure is finished, Sarah's puppet friends pop up in her bedroom for one last dance, reminding her whenever they're needed they'll always be around.