Cult Cinema: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

In preparation for the return of Twin Peaks, Andrew reviews David Lynch's much maligned horror show, Fire Walk with Me

David Lynch and Mark Frost's 1990 television smash hit Twin Peaks had come full circle for both its creators and the spectator.  Just as quickly as Lynch's fame struck a chord in the mainstream, making him a revered and trendy pop culture icon, Lynch found himself and his series reviled by the same people who previously championed him.  Lynch even won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his 1990 road romance melodrama Wild at Heart and was arguably at the peak of his powers.  Two years later, his attendance at Cannes was not unlike Nicolas Winding Refn's Cannes screening of Only God Forgives.  Why one of the most popular television programs of all time abruptly ended only after its second season is still open to debate, either due to network pressure in revealing Laura Palmer's killer mid-second season or due to Lynch's own fingers in too many other pies while still taking credit for the series.  We'll never know for sure.

What we do know is that a year after the show ended on something of a still unresolved cliffhanger, David Lynch wasn't quite ready to close the doors on his small town American comic horror phenomenon just yet and in 1992 a prequel/sequel bookend to the finale of Season 2 emerged in the form of Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me.  If critics and audiences had their daggers drawn for Lynch, feeling fed up with his perceived air of pomposity and self-indulgence as it were, they unjustly plunged them deep into Fire Walk with Me.  Infamously screened at Cannes to a chorus of boos including Quentin Tarantino's own admission that Lynch had 'disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different', Fire Walk with Me was long thought to be a merciless dirge that drove the final nail in Lynch's coffin.  While the film performed admirably in Japan only, of all places, it died a sad and quiet death in North America and Lynch didn't make another film until 1997 with Lost Highway.

This room is just so confusing!

Some twenty years later, Twin Peaks and David Lynch fans have since reversed themselves and accepted the brutal, mean and nasty Fire Walk with Me into the canon and it can finally be seen outside the dark cloud it brewed for what it really is: one of the finest horror films ever made about how sexual abuse affects human beings.  Whether all the dots drawn in the series and the film align (many do while others don't) is beside the point.  There are those who will attest Fire Walk with Me is incomprehensible without knowledge of the series and all the twists and turns it takes, but I'm inclined to disagree.  Yes the film may spoil a major revelation which comes mid-Season 2 and there are some who will strongly suggest watching the complete series before taking on the film, and again I stand by my belief that Fire Walk with Me is a self-contained work of art full of passion, fire and heart that will scare the Hell out of you as it brings tears to your eyes.

The first thirty minutes or so of Fire Walk with Me serves as something of a loose pilot attempting to launch a spinoff series that could have been helmed by Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland.  Isaak as Special Agent Chester Desmond clearly makes a fitting potential replacement for Kyle MacLachlan's famous Special Agent Dale Cooper, but I digress.  It is here that much of the quirky small town comedy found in the show is visible, including great laughs courtesy of Harry Dean Stanton's crusty Fat Trout Trailer Park manager.  Also attempting another spinoff is a brief cameo by David Bowie as Phillip Jeffries, an agent who like Dale Cooper has managed to visit the otherworldly and demonic Black Lodge looming over Twin Peaks.  This first half hour plays somewhat like the opening to Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket in that it's like an entirely different film preceding what comes next.  Some elements in the introduction find their way into the second and third acts but ultimately it's a bit of a diversion before abruptly launching into what is really the beginning of the movie: the last seven days of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks.

Coffee. I love you.

It's worth noting the first version of Fire Walk with Me ran over three hours and managed to include nearly every character from the show save for Richard Beymer's Benjamin Horne and Sherlyn Fenn's Audrey Horne, who declined to return to the film.  Also missing is Lara Flynn Boyle as Laura's best friend Donna Hayward, with the role hastily recast by Moira Kelly.  When Lynch elected to pare the running time down to just over two hours, the ensemble cast with all the characters the show would ordinarily cross-cut to were junked in favor of ruminating entirely and only on Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer, a move that no doubt alienated die-hard fans expecting the ABC Prime Time Network show.  Further still, this was a hard R rated film that would push everything in your face the censors wouldn't allow on television, making the quirky and small town and ugly and cruel place to be.  In a way, Fire Walk with Me plays like a rebuke of the show with the very first image consisting of a television being smashed with a hammer.  Years later, Lynch would finally recut all the deleted footage with the full cast into the length of a feature for the Complete Mystery Blu-ray box set although even after seeing them, many questions remain unanswered still.

Despite the paragraphs of problems noted above concerning Fire Walk with Me, including bit that don't seem to go anywhere other than anecdotal weirdness, what is here is one of the most compelling and galvanizing studies of a woman in trouble I have ever seen!  That Sheryl Lee's performances as the deeply damaged and emotionally unraveling Laura Palmer was overlooked due to the film's negative reception is as criminal as the glossing over of Oliver Reed's brilliant performance in Ken Russell's still controversial The Devils.  It's an astonishing performance, one of the greatest ever given by an actress in my humble opinion and she will terrify you and break your heart!  Watch a scene where a drug deal goes bad as Lee manages to laugh and sob in the same breath!  Lynch was often dogged by critics like Roger Ebert (whom I still respect despite his repeated slams on Lynch) for being 'misogynistic' and arguably Laura Palmer is the ultimate personification of the quote on quote 'battered Lynch girl'. 

Let it be said the door was open and Sheryl Lee eagerly walked through it and fearlessly goes the full distance, taking a naked swan dive far into Laura's ordeal.  You almost fear for Sheryl Lee as she goes further and further into some truly dark places, touching on emotions and feelings most actresses would shy away from.  Equally strong is Ray Wise as Leland Palmer who manages to convey his own internal battle within without asking for any sympathy, kinship or mercy.  It goes without saying Lynch's accidental set-decorator turned central character actor Frank Silva as the demon BOB is the scariest thing Lynch has ever created and will even make Freddy Krueger cower in fear when standing alongside him.  BOB is the bona fide stuff of nightmares and proof positive that even when Lynch's films get funny and don't necessarily qualify as horror in the traditional sense, they contain moments that are frankly scarier than anything! 

Performances aside, on a technical level this is one of Lynch's most beautiful achievements.  Full of lush, moody 35mm cinematography by Ron Garcia (who also lensed most of the show), unbelievably rich and complicated sound engineering and arguably the best score Angelo Badalamenti has ever written, it's a feast for the senses in every area and is one of the few times where listening to the film on a home theater is integral to the experience.  From the opening cue of ambient synthesizers, zildjians and a mournful saxophone against a blue background slowly fading into focus revealing the white noise of a television screen, this is among my personal favorite opening cues to a film and is right up there with Alien and The Thing for its subtlety, suggesting enormity just around the corner.  A standout sequence involves a drug filled bar full of cigarette smoke, red lights, strobe lights and a droning jazz band with a wicked banging snare drum, playing almost like an even more Hellacious vision of the Black Lodge with red curtains and black-and-white zig zagged floor tiles.  This of course wouldn't be a Twin Peaks film without the backwards talking dwarf, The Man from the Other Place (Michael J. Anderson) or the one-armed MIKE (Al Strobel) appearing to fill in gray areas as well as create new entanglements in the storyline. 

laura palmer
Damn you cheap lipstick!!!

As Laura's nightmare draws towards its inevitable conclusion, the film builds towards a full throated wide eyed primal scream of terror as the simultaneously horrific and emotionally draining sledgehammer comes down hard on the viewer.  It's a Grand Guignol finale pummels you into the ground and leaves you thoroughly shaken, battered and broken, a monumentally powerful ending to an already towering achievement of great horror and beauty.  In my lifetime of watching movies and the emotional experiences communicated through the medium of film, few of them were ever this strong, so much so that it grabs you by the throat and wrestles you to the ground, holding you in place as you struggle before slowly expiring.  Even after Eraserhead, Lost Highway and even Mulholland Drive, it is the one film in Lynch's career that quite literally beats the Hell out of you and perhaps in the end leaves you forever changed by what you have seen.  While the cinema of David Lynch doesn't necessarily fit the ordinary or commonly known definition of horror, in his oeuvre this is by far the most harrowing and devastating film he has ever made and when the great British film historian Mark Kermode referred to it as 'the best horror film of 1992', I can't help but completely share that point of view.  It is one of my top ten favorite films of all time and for my money Lynch's finest hour.


-Andrew Kotwicki

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