As part of our series on Kid’s Horror, Kim Morrison looks back at one of Jim Henson’s lesser known creations…
As a child, there was no denying I was a massive fan of Jim Henson and the magical worlds he created. Films like The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996) were very rarely out of my VHS player. But as a kid who loved a touch of horror it was the likes of Labyrinth (1986) and The Dark Crystal (1982) which gave me that mix of cute critters, fantasy worlds and terrifying creatures – such as the Skeksis – that I was looking for.
In 1988 in the UK Channel 4 aired all nine episodes of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1987), a limited series which retold a number of European folk tales. I owned all nine episodes across four VHS tapes and watched them more times than I could count. These were versions of stories we all knew and loved, such as ‘Sapsorrow’ which was very close to Cinderella and ‘Hans My Hedgehog’ recalling Beauty and the Beast. However these retellings weren’t afraid to include the darker bits, the scarier characters and the bleaker endings. And – as ever – Jim Henson’s creature workshop allowed the episodes to blend human actors with masterfully-created monsters to sweep us away to magical lands that felt like they really existed.
Perhaps the more frightening elements worked so well because we were being told them second-hand. Using the framing device of the Storyteller character, played by John Hurt wearing face prosthetics to make him appear more Muppet-like, meant that the stories themselves were clearly fictional even when the Storyteller claimed to be a part of them himself. For a child that buffer zone away from the scary stuff gave us the chance to enjoy the monsters without worrying that you were going to bump into them in real life.
One of the scariest tales of the bunch, which wasn’t even shown in the US during the original run, was ‘The Three Ravens’. After the death of the Queen, an evil Witch makes it her business to marry the King and take over his kingdom. In her way stand the King’s three sons and his daughter whom the Witch is intent on getting rid of. She creates cursed sweaters which turn the young princes into ravens, but the Princess manages to escape, hiding in the woods. She discovers that if she doesn’t speak for three years, three months, three weeks and three days the curse on her brothers will be lifted.
The scene where the Witch turns the brothers into the ravens is gruesome body horror at its finest, especially for a TV show aimed at children. It could have been done easily, showing the boys in one shot and then the real ravens flying out of the cabin the next: instead we get fleeting shots of what the princes look like mid-transformation, their skin turning a purplish blue, their mouths stretched into beaks and feathers filling the room as their arms twist into wings. The aim of this sequence is not only to show the princes being turned into animals but to convey that it is a painful process. The Witch wants to be rid of her new stepchildren but she’s choosing to do it in gruesome and sadistic fashion.
Soon the Princess falls in love with a young Prince, and when she heads back to his kingdom to marry him she discovers the Witch has moved on and become this Prince’s evil stepmother. In a bid to ruin the Princess’ life the Witch steals three of her’ newborn babies, leading her to be accused of being a witch herself. One baby is replaced with a doll, the other with a piglet and all that remains of the final baby is a blanket full of dirt. While the babies turn up safe at the end of the story it’s pretty ballsy of a kids’ show to seemingly kill off three infants in quick succession, all while the Princess is left mute and unable to explain what’s going on.
Another excellent horror episode is ‘The Soldier and Death’ which follows a serviceman returning from war and who gifts his last remaining biscuits to some beggars only to be rewarded with a sack that can trap any living creature. At first the Soldier uses it to catch things like geese for dinner, but when he finds out a local castle is overrun with devils who happen to own a lot of gold he decides to test the sack’s potential.
The castle is overrun by these mini-sized demons, and though they’re hilarious they’re also villainous in design. Henson didn’t skimp on making these things look as evil as possible, with their pointy teeth and tiny sneers. And the fact there are so many of them lurching over the Soldier as he wins their gold in a game of cards makes it clear just how much danger he’s in. Even though the Soldier wins fair and square he still risks becoming their breakfast, and so he orders them into his sack before sending them back to Hell where they belong.
The next creature the Soldier encounters is Death itself, and while the Soldier tries to beat the reaper for a while by becoming a miracle man he soon realises that the only way to escape Death forever is to capture it in his sack. But while he is joyful at ridding the world of mortality he soon realises the general population are miserable as they wander about in their old age, waiting for Death’s sweet release. Finally discovering that he cannot control everything the Soldier releases Death, and as people all over the world begin to die again Death refuses to return for the Soldier, too afraid of him after its imprisonment.
In the end, having lived far longer than he should have and having watched everyone he loves die, the Soldier is turned away from Hell by the devils and Heaven by God due to his desire to control those around him, and is left to wander the earth alone forever. Many kids’ shows skirt around the topic of death, but ‘The Soldier and Death’ shows that sometimes there are far worse things than dying, and in fact death is a very natural part of life.
I think what The Storyteller did so well was a subtle kind of horror that crawled under your skin and stayed with you long after you had rewound the tape. Even rewatching ‘The Three Ravens’ as a thirty-five-year-old I am still shocked by the brutality of the transformation scene, as we watch these three children be twisted into something beyond recognition. Things like Scooby-Doo (1969) gave us access to a range of monsters and horror knowledge, but something like The Storyteller took a Brothers Grimm approach and gave a generation of children access to more horror than the Hollywood monsters that popped up everywhere else.
The Storyteller is also an excellent precursor to properties like Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990) and Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids (2000), which also used the wraparound cushion of a narrator to tackle weighty topics such as death, losing loved ones, being alone and how generally unjust life can be. The wonder of each episode and the magnificent creatures who were designed with such care – even though they only ever got about five minutes of screen-time – are what made it a series to return to again and again: but it’s the exploration of these darker themes and the creeping sense of dread about what was lurking out in the shadows that really sticks with you and makes the series such a brilliant watch so many years after its first release.
© Kim Morrison
Want more content on Kid’s Horror? Check out our podcast episode on Gateway’s into the genre for children, and a deep-dive on Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia (1990).