The Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) sends the Goblin Blix (Alice Playten) to kill the unicorns near his castle and bring home their horns. He hopes thereby to bring eternal night to the world. Darkness tells his minions that innocence is the best bait to catch unicorns, so Blix and his assistants Pox (Peter O’Farrell) and Blunder (Kiran Shah) trail Princess Lili (Mia Sara) as she goes to visit her love in the forest, Jack in the Green (Tom Cruise). He teaches her to speak to animals and takes her blindfolded to a forest stream where unicorns appear.
When Lili reaches out to touch the stallion, the Goblin Blix shoots it with a poison dart and the unicorns flee. Jack is angry, but Lili throws her ring into a pond and vows to marry whoever finds it. Jack dives in as the goblins track down the poisoned stallion and sever its alicorn horn, causing winter to descend everywhere. Lili flees in terror and Jack struggles to break through the ice on the pond.
Lili takes refuge in the cottage of a peasant family frozen in Time. She witnesses the goblins testing the alicorn’s magic powers and learns that she was the bait for the trap. The goblins meet with Darkness, who laments that the world cannot be thrust into eternal darkness as long as the unicorn mare still lives. Blunder tries to use the magic horn to overthrow Darkness and is sent to the dungeon. Jack, with the help of the forest elf Honeythorn Gump (David Bennett), a fairy named Oona (Annabelle Lanyon), and two dwarfs named Brown Tom (Cork Hubbert) and Screwball (Billy Barty), finds the mare as she mourns the dead stallion.
Jack apologizes to the mare for his involvement and the mare tells him that the alicorn must be recovered by a great hero. The group decides that Jack is that hero. They leave Brown Tom to guard the unicorns while the rest of the band uncover a cache of ancient weapons and armor. Lili returns to warn Brown Tom that the goblins are coming to kill the mare, but the dwarf is incapacitated and the goblins seize both Lili and the mare. Returning to find them gone, Jack and his companions make their way to the Castle of Darkness. They are attacked by a swamp hag named Meg Mucklebones (voice of Robert Picardo), but Jack flatters her and decapitates her. At the castle, they end up in an underground prison, where they find Blunder. He is not a goblin but a fairy gone astray and is dragged off by ogres (Ian Longmur and Michael Crane) to be baked in a pie. Oona uses magic to escape from her cell and get her hands on the keys.
Lili roams the castle looking for warmth and escape, and a dark, dancing entity tempts her and turns her into a Gothic version of herself. This is so Darkness can claim her as his bride. She agrees to marry him on condition that she be allowed to kill the mare. Jack and Gump overhear the conversation and learn that Darkness can be destroyed by daylight. After saving Blunder, they take the ogres’ giant metal platters to be used as mirrors to reflect sunlight into the killing chamber.
The ritual begins and Lili tries to free the mare, but Darkness puts her to sleep. Jack’s team redirects the sunlight as Jack battles with Darkness. He wounds Darkness with the alicorn as Darkness is bathed in light, blasting him to the edge of the eternal void. He boasts that he will never be vanquished because evil lurks in all beings. Jack casts him into the void. Gump returns the stallion to life by reattaching its horn, and as it is revived winter suddenly ends. Jack retrieves Lili’s ring from the pond and places it on her finger. She wakes from the spell. There are three different versions of the film’s end, in one of which Darkness survives.
The film was created and directed by Ridley Scott. Though it was not a commercial success at first, it won the British Society of Cinematographers Award for cinematographer Alex Thomson, and it was nominated for a Best Makeup Oscar and for a Saturn and BAFTA Awards for design, makeup, and special effects. It is in fact glorious to behold. Following the release of Scott’s director’s cut, it became a cult classic. Scott conceived of the film while he was working on The Duellists, then went on to work on Alien and Dune before he returned to the story. He read all of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to prepare. He was inspired by several books by William Hjortsberg and they bonded over Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). They began work just before Scott began Blade Runner and ended up writing 15 scripts.
Scott was also inspired by Disney’s Snow White, Fantasia, and Pinocchio, and the art of Arthur Rackham, not to mention the story of Adam and Eve, Dante’s Inferno, and Paradise Lost. Mickey Rooney was considered for a dwarf but he wasn’t that much shorter than Tom Cruise. A forest was built on the 007 Stage, used for James Bond movies, at Pinewood Studios. The set burned down but they only lost three days of filming. Jerry Goldsmith’s score was replaced by one by Tangerine Dream for the U.S. release, but Goldsmith’s powerful original was used for the director’s cut. Tom Cruise hated the American cut and always urged audiences to see Ridley Scott’s version.
The face of the goblin Blix was based on that of Keith Richards. Jack’s armor was made of flattened bottle caps. The sound of the unicorns was based on whale songs. Except for Tim Curry’s performance, which was universally praised, reviews were quite mixed, sometimes running into mean. Tim Curry’s makeup for Darkness is now an iconic fantasy image. It took five and a half hours to apply, encasing his entire body, and one time he became frustrated and tore it off, injuring his skin. After filming around him for a while, Scott realized that the character was more impressive if audiences had to wait to see him, and he cut out some of his scenes early in the movie. The costume raised his five-foot-nine height to seven-foot-three.