Wednesday, June 23, 2010
One Chance Out Between Two Worlds
The 1990s have become known as the age of irony for the horror genre. Self-reflexive humor, as epitomized by the Scream trilogy, replaced the outrageous splatstick of The Evil Dead movies during the 1980s. One of the few films that went against this trend was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). David Lynch’s film is not usually regarded as a horror film per se, but if looked at closely, does contain many conventions of the genre (i.e. the final girl against the malevolent monster). However, the veteran filmmaker pushes these rules as far as they can possibly be stretched. Kim Newman observed in his review for Sight and Sound magazine that Lynch’s movie “demonstrates just how tidy, conventional and domesticated the generic horror movie of the 1980s and 1990s has become.”
Fire Walk With Me was a prequel to Lynch’s critically lauded cult television show, Twin Peaks. Instead of resolving several storylines left hanging at the end of its brief run, the film immerses the viewer in a highly stylized, surreal world of backward-talking dwarfs and FBI agents trapped in otherworldly dimensions with its initial focus being the murder investigation of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) followed by an emphasis on the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) life.
Right from the opening credits, Lynch establishes the film’s horror genre credentials. A television is set to an abstract, white noise image with ominous sounding music provided by Angelo Badalamenti playing over the soundtrack. An axe comes crashing through the TV followed immediately by a woman’s piercing scream. This opening sequence establishes the dark, foreboding mood that will permeate the entire movie.
Like the beginning of Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971), the events of Fire Walk With Me are set in motion by the murder of a woman. Lynch also presents an inhospitable world: FBI agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) investigate and encounter resistance every step of the way. They are given a cryptic briefing by their superior; they are forced to deal with a belligerent local sheriff and his deputy (when they ask for the dead girl’s ring, the sheriff replies, “We’ve got a phone. It has a little ring.”), and the locals offer little help (“I don’t know shit from shinola!”). By and large, the detectives are unable to figure out the identity of the killer.
The settings for both murders are in small towns. Twin Peaks, especially, is a particularly atmospheric setting with indications that something ominous lurks out in the woods. Laura Palmer not only meets her demise in the woods but an entry point into an otherworldly dimension for the killer resides in a grove of trees. Another jarring location is the Canadian road house that Laura and Donna visit with two men. This sequence is an intense audio-visual assault on the senses. The entire frame is saturated by a hellish red color scheme, punctuated by a pulsating white strobe light. Over the soundtrack is a deafening bass-heavy song with a rockabilly guitar twang cranked up so loud that the characters have to yell over top of it.
Laura Palmer is the final girl archetype but deeply flawed. It is an unflinching depiction of a woman consumed by drugs, sex and, most harrowingly and disturbingly of all, a victim of incest by her father (Ray Wise) under the guise of being possessed by a malevolent supernatural force known only as BOB (Frank Silva). Laura Palmer is arguably one of Lynch’s most complex and fully realized characterizations. She immerses herself in all of these vices, which distracts from the painful incestuous relationship with her father and BOB’s desire to possess her. The push and pull of these opposing forces are too much for her and this only increases her self-destructive impulses.
Sheryl Lee does an incredible job conveying Laura’s overwhelming sadness at the realization that the sweet girl she once was is rapidly disappearing and try as she might there is nothing she can do to stop it. Lee is able to show the different sides of her character. There is the confident, aggressive side that picks up strangers and has sex with them. There is the scared little girl that is dominated by her father. And there is the sweet high school girl whose reserves of inner strength — that she uses to fight off BOB — are gradually being depleted. It is an intricate portrayal that requires Lee to display a staggering range of emotion.
BOB is ostensibly the monster of the film. With his disheveled, unshaven look of a dirty drifter, he is the evil side of Leland and a frightening metaphor for the incestuous relationship between father and daughter. BOB is a demon of some sort, a serial killer who delights in taking on hosts, such as Leland, and using them as instruments of evil and to indulge in his appetites. Kim Newman observes that, “In the monster father figure of Leland/BOB, Lynch has a bogeyman who puts Craven’s Freddy Krueger to shame by bringing into the open incest, abuse and brutality which the Elm Street movies conceal behind MTV surrealism and flip wisecracks.”
There are some truly frightening and unsettling set pieces in Fire Walk With Me. Laura comes home for dinner and her father scolds her for not washing her hands. The scene goes from being one of typical domestic strife to one of unsettling horror when he starts questioning her about a necklace with an intensity that is not the sweet Leland Palmer we know and love from the TV series. It is an uncomfortable scene that is beautifully played by Ray Wise who never goes over the top with his performance. The next scene shows Leland getting ready for bed with a menacing look on his face — he is clearly under the thrall of BOB. Then, something happens. It is like something washes over him as his expression shifts to one of sadness and he starts to cry. BOB has left him temporarily and Leland is back in control again but with the knowledge of how badly he treated Laura at dinner. He goes into her room and tells her how much he loves her. It is a touching moment, one of love and compassion, in an otherwise bleak and cruel film. Wise does an incredible job at conveying the subtle shifts of personalities, from the menacing BOB to the sweet Leland and the inner turmoil that exists in his character.
There are little touches, such as the twisted wife (Grace Zabriskie) who is driven crazy by her evil husband a la Cry of the Banshee (1970) where an equally evil husband (played by Vincent Price) also drove his wife insane. There is the truly frightening moment where Laura goes to visit Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen), a kindly shut-in to whom Laura delivers Meals on Wheels. She also confides in him and tries to convey the divided nature of herself and for a brief, startling moment, her evil nature makes itself visible to Harold, shocking both of them.
To this day, Fire Walk With Me remains Lynch’s most maligned and underappreciated film. Fans of the show missed the folksy humor but that is not what the film is about — it is Laura’s last dark days. By paring down many of these elements that made the show endearing to its fanbase, Lynch may have upset them but for fans of his feature film work, Fire Walk With Me is more consistent with their much darker tone. Once the film shifts focus to Laura’s descent into darkness, Lynch is relentless in his depiction of her downward spiral — one of the most harrowing depictions of a person coming apart at the seams. As a result, Fire Walk With Me is one of the best and truly terrifying horror films ever to come out of the 1990s.