Film and TV

Why David Lynch Is One of the Greatest Horror Movie Directors Ever

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is playing this Thursday in Tempe.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is playing this Thursday in Tempe. Courtesy of New Line Cinema
Warning: This post contains spoilers for pretty much every David Lynch film/TV show in existence.

Who is the greatest horror movie auteur of all time? A few worthy candidates immediately come to mine. Look across the sea and you’ve got the three Italian greats: Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci. Cast your eye closer to home and you’ve got '80s slasher/B-movie kingpins like John Carpenter and Wes Craven or the body horror of David Cronenberg. If you want to look back deep into film history, you could nominate silent maestro F.W. Murnau for Nosferatu or James Whale for producing black-and-white horror classics like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.

But for my money, the throne for the king of horror belongs to one director: David Lynch.

Lynch usually doesn’t get classified as a horror director. He’s more arthouse than grindhouse; his films end up in the Criterion Collection, not Scream Factory. And he’s made his share of films that couldn’t possibly be considered horror films, much in the way that Bava also made sword-and-sandal Hercules flicks when he wasn’t making giallo films. There's the fascinating sci-fi trainwreck Dune, the moving family drama The Straight Story, and the biopic The Elephant Man. But if you look at the core of his work – oblique masterpieces like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, and Inland Empire – they draw much of their power from adopting and tweaking the conventions of horror.

The kind of horror that Lynch deals in his cosmic and existential. While there can be moments of stomach-turning violence and gore (like the hole in Sherilynn Fenn’s head in Wild At Heart or the severed ear in Blue Velvet) and full-on body horror (pretty much all of Eraserhead), Lynch’s particular brand of horror isn’t rooted in racking up body counts or creatively offing his characters with whatever tool caught his eye on his last trip to Home Depot. The horror of his films lies in grappling with the inexplicable.

Lynch’s films are almost Lovecraftian in their approach to horror. Like Lovecraft, his characters often descend into madness or experience physical transformations after encountering otherworldly forces. Consider the way Fred’s life goes wildly off the rails shortly after meeting the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, culminating in his jailhouse body-switch into Pete. Or how the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks acts as a prism for Dale Cooper, separating his mind and body into different and discrete units. Then there’s the way time often loops or runs out of sequence in his movies, which serves to further unsettle both the viewers and the characters caught in these strange loops.

Where Lynch differs from Lovecraft, and what makes his approach all the more disturbing, is the randomness of it. What Lovecraft and most slasher films have in common is that curiosity is often the root cause of a character’s downfall. In these stories, someone hears a weird noise in the basement and goes to investigate, or a student of the occult finds a strange grimoire and reads it out loud or fiddles with a sinister-looking puzzle box. It’s a recurring theme in so much horror literature and cinema: Don’t poke your nose, don’t stick your neck out. Let mysteries be mysteries, because the answers will kill you.

Ninety percent of Lovecraft’s stories would have happy endings if their narrators just said “Nope, fuck that, I’m not looking any further into this.” Even the virulent and ugly racism that weaves in and out of his work, his obsessions with “tainted” bloodlines and pearl-clutching over miscegenation, can be tied into this overarching “curiosity killed the cat” subtext: If people stuck to their own kind and stayed in their lane, none of this would be happening.

Lynch’s films are different in that it doesn’t matter if you try and stay out of it: Bad shit will happen to you anyway. Sure, some characters pay the price for being nosey: Patrick Fischler’s character probably wouldn’t have made his croak dream come true if he hadn’t investigated the dumpster behind Winkie's Diner in Mulholland Drive; Cooper probably wouldn’t have permanently fucked reality if he decided not to go back into the Lodge and “fix things” at the end of Twin Peaks: The Return. But those are the exceptions to the rule in Lynch’s cinema. In most cases, the weird and inexplicable crosses characters’ paths like a stray cat: ambling in and out of their lives without warning or cause.

In addition to curiosity, the other determining element in so many horror films is morality. “Bad” people suffer while the good and virtuous make it out the other side. The "Final Girl" is always a virgin and never a slutty cheerleader. While Lynch will sometimes go along with this convention, like having the thing in the glass box bust out and kill a couple having sex in the first episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, that kind of clear-cut morality isn’t a constant in his film universes.

Lynch does revel in populating his worlds with extremes: virtuous innocent characters (Blue Velvet’s Sandy, Twin Peaks’ Andy) and absolute evil (Wild At Heart’s Bobby Peru, Twin Peaks’ Bob). But the characters who drive his stories, and who most often clash with and come to terms with the horror in his work, are people who identify with both ends of the spectrum, like Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey, a Boy Scout who nevertheless has an intense voyeuristic streak that draws him into the underworld ruled by the thug Frank. Sailor and Lula, the crazy-in-love, good-hearted couple in Wild At Heart, fuck like rabbits, curse like sailors, and commit their share of crimes. And while Dale Cooper projects the image of a dependable, Jimmy Stewart-style lawman, his “fracturing” in The Black Lodge reveals that he has a darker, brutal, more unforgiving side to his nature.

Perhaps the most perfect Lynchian “hero” is Laura Palmer. Initially just a plastic-wrapped cipher that an entire town projected their hopes, sorrows, and desires on in the original Twin Peaks TV series, 1992’s hated-upon-release prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me turns Laura into a rich, three-dimensional, tragic figure.

Sheryl Lee gives the performance of a lifetime in Fire Walk With Me, depicting a character who is riven by contradictions. She’s both a loyal friend and the kind of person who’d knowingly roofie her bestie. She's a tough, take-no-shit chick who’s grimly resigned to her fate, someone who yearns for escape and yet scorns anyone who offers it to her. She's a cynical lady of the night who still harbors some hope that angels will save her (in one of Fire Walk’s most haunting moments, Laura watches an angel in a painting in her room disappear). She does drugs, fornicates, and mocks goody-two-shoes characters like James and Donna. She’s the kind of character who wouldn’t make it past the first 20 minutes in a Friday the 13th movie.

Fire Walk With Me presents the best case for Lynch as a Horror Auteur. The first hour alone throws us into the deep end, opening with a blood-curdling scream and an axe burying itself in a TV. Even though there’s plenty of Lynch’s trademark quirky humor in the opening “Deer Meadow” section, the film has a constant undercurrent of unease. Part of that unease is stoked by Lynch’s sound design: The ominous whooshing that presages otherworldly beings stepping into the frame, the flickering hum of electricity. With the exception of Harry Dean Stanton’s rattled and stooped Carl, all the performances are stilted and mannered. Nothing feels quite real. When the action shifts to Philadelphia, dropping us into an office full of familiar characters from the TV show, they still have that same affected style of acting. As though everyone in the movie has been hypnotized and are talking in a daze. We see a randomly vanishing David Bowie, beings in white masks prancing in decrepit rooms, and all sorts of disconnected and eerie imagery. Even for longtime fans of the show, watching this first hour can feel like taking a dose of bad acid.

There’s a significant tonal shift when the film returns to its namesake town. The unease is still ever-present, but the return of Angelo Badalamenti’s signature music casts a soothing balm over certain scenes. And the acting starts to feel more natural: Sheryl Lee as Laura and Ray Wise as her father, Leland Palmer, feel more like real people than anyone else in the movie, which is all the more disconcerting considering how disturbed they both are. Wise turns Leland Palmer into the ultimate horror movie monster: a controlling, demanding father whose love is mirrored by the grievous sexual crimes committed against his daughter. While the TV show went out of its way to imply that Leland Palmer and Bob, the spirit possessing him, were two different beings, the film complicates that interpretation, giving plenty of evidence to indicate that Leland is a troubled, yet willing participant in making Laura’s life an unending hell.

While the first half of the film deals with otherworldly excursions and horrible beings from somewhere else, much of the horror that manifests itself in Fire Walk comes from trauma, incest, and sexual abuse. Much like the skin-crawling scene in Wild At Heart where Bobby Peru assaults Lula, Fire Walk With Me doesn’t shy away from depicting the darkness in Laura's life. Much of her erratic behavior – sex, drugs, self-imposed bouts of isolation, hard-nosed cynicism – begins to make terrible sense once we realize the extent of Leland's abuse.

Fire Walk With Me is full of images that would make for great nightmare fuel: A deranged Leland chasing/shoving Laura and another victim through the woods; The masked boy with no eyes jumping around in the motel parking lot; Bob popping up next to the dresser in Laura's room. It's in these moments that Lynch shows his horror bona fides: The thing behind the dumpster at Winkie's, the "clown face" that appears towards the end of Inland Empire, the murderous Charred Men in the Twin Peaks: The Return. What gives these scenes and vignettes their power is their impossibility, their disregard for plausibility or logic. They just happen.

What gives these scenes their weight is that the people experiencing them react to it; As much as actors in Lynch films can underplay and go comically flat in their goofier moments, they know how to give the dark moments all the terror and confusion they deserve to really sell them. It's why Laura's struggles in Fire Walk With Me are so affecting: It shows that the things that are happening to her have weight, that the real horror of the film is watching those things drag her down and suffocate her.

Laura Palmer is a rarity: a Final Girl who doesn't survive at the end. While she dies in the train car, Lynch still gives her a moment of much-needed grace at the end when her angel comes back to her. It hadn't abandoned her after all – it just left the painting so they could meet on the other side.

The first time I watched the end of Fire Walk, I understood why Lynch's brand of horror works. There has to be beauty and redemption and life, there has to be something worth preserving, in order for horror to have any real impact. We have to want Danny to get out of the hedge maze in The Shining, we have to pull for Laurie to escape from Michael in Halloween, or there's no point to it. If there's nothing to care about, you're just watching talking meat being pushed through a grinder.

That's what makes Lynch's "horror" movies so powerful. Yes, they're full of incomprehensible monsters and distorted realities and grotesque gangsters and random violence. But they're also funny and full of moments of beauty and loveliness and hope. If you're going to drag someone through hell, you've gotta have an angel waiting on the other side.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. 7 p.m. Thursday, October 25, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 1140 East Baseline Road, Tempe; 480-795-6622; Tickets are $8.65 via
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Ashley Naftule