“What is Light Without Darkness?”: The Shadow Dance in Legend (1985)

Sometimes you come across a scene which stays with you, forever etched onto the little projection screen in your head. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t care about film ratings. Now, granted, I wasn’t watching Saw films or anything like that, it’s just that my parents believed that film ratings where far too subjective, so they relied on their own discretion. To this day, I have no basis for comparison when it comes to film ratings, I am constantly at a lost.  

Because of this position, there were many times when my parents decided to turn off a movie about halfway through, generally when they suddenly remembered a disturbing scene or character. As a result, I grew up with fragments of cinema, little pieces of strange film which I had no context for. This had a huge impact on the way I watch movies, as I spend a lot of time trying to match fragments with their respective film. My love of cinema is very much a love of tracking, hence this blog’s title (You Remind Me of the Frame). I have found most of these films by now, but there are still times when I come across a scene which suddenly mirrors one that has been playing in my head for years. Today, I want to talk about a scene which left the largest impression on me: the dance scene in Legend.

Legend is one of the greatest fantasy films of all time, and many believe it was the inspiration behind the video game Legend of Zelda. At its best, the film includes an incredible Tim Curry performance and arguably the best devil in movie history (seriously, the makeup and design of this film are seamless). At its worst, the film includes a lot of Tom Cruise booty short moments (although to some, perhaps this is its best quality?).

The film is an original fairy tale which mixes the Christian devil with medieval unicorns and 80’s power chords. What more could you ask for in a film? It is about a Princess who accidently freezes the world after touching a unicorn. The Devil, or the ‘Darkness’ as he is called in the film, wants the world to stay frozen and without light. After the Darkness kidnaps Princess Lili and the last surviving unicorn, a young adventurer named Jack must embark on a magical quest to save the world and stop the Darkness from forever entombing the earth.

The scene which I remember most vividly is when the Darkness tries to seduce Lili and convince her to accept her dark self. After fleeing her prison cell, Lili finds herself in a shadowy lair, surrounded by massive columns and a huge fireplace. She spots a long mirror and a shiny casket, inside of which is a glistening necklace. As she puts the jewels to her chest and smiles, she realizes that she is not alone. Behind her, shown in the mirror, is a shadow wearing an extravagant black dress. The shadow has the same dimensions as Lili, but her face is covered with some featureless black material. She has no eyes, no expression. The Princess is reasonably terrified by this figure as it sways back and forth beside the fireplace. Her dance is beautiful and eerie, as is the piped organ music she moves with. Suddenly, she runs towards Lili, and caresses her cheek, luring and pulling the Princess into a wild dance with her.

The two contrast one another, as the Princess is wearing a white tattered dress, one which symbolize her loss of innocence after touching the unicorn and damning the world. As she dances with her shadow, the music becomes faster and more passionate, as does their dance. And then, very suddenly, Lili tearfully embraces her shadow and the two mesh into one person. The Princess is now wearing her shadow’s revealing black dress. She has become something dark and sinister; she has become her own reflection.

In addition to the striking visuals in the dance, I return to this scene because of Lili’s characterization. She is not a helpless victim, rather, she is calculated and brave, and later tricks the Darkness into freeing the unicorn. This means that although the scene is about a seduction, it is not the traditional kind. When Lili embraces her shadow, she essentially embraces the darker aspects of her personality. The Darkness hopes that this will corrupt the Princess, and free her from her painfully innocent personality. It does, but not in the way he wanted. Lili continues to resist the Darkness and help her friends, regardless of what form she is wearing. The embrace gives Lili the strength she needs to accept herself, both good and bad.

This explains why the Princess is crying tears of joy as she welcomes her shadow. The moment is not damning, its liberating. It’s the first time where Lili realizes she has to reconcile both parts of herself, rather than splitting the two. Legend remains such a unique film not just because of its visuals, but for its representation of grief, power, and femininity. While its Princess still needs to be saved, so does the world. Lili is also willing to sacrifice herself, not knowing that she is about to be rescued.

Likewise, Lili is aware of what is happening around her and uses this to lure the Darkness into making a mistake, essentially reversing the power dynamic between them. Lili is not some helpless figure, nor some ignorant Eve. She is more of a Lilith type, one drawn to the Darkness but also independent and conscious.

At the beginning of the film, Lili rejects Jack’s warning about the unicorn and then later rejects the Darkness’ offer. In both instances, Lili is given information and then makes her own decision, often one which puts herself at risk. What makes these moments different is that in the first, Lili was willing to sacrifice the unicorn, and in the second, she realized she had to sacrifice herself for the betterment of all. I would argue that this makes the Princess far more complex than her title would suggest. If this scene illustrates anything, it is that people are not as single minded as they appear. She is both light and dark simultaneously, and more importantly, she can manage these personalities.

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