It’s worth noting that David Lynch’s 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me–a prequel to the legendary TV series that Lynch co-created with Mark Frost–was booed at Cannes. Writing about the film in the New York Times at the time of its release, Vincent Canby opined, “Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree.” The film was widely viewed as an incoherent disaster (to Canby, “an undifferentiated mess of story lines and hallucinations”), and it fed into a backlash against Lynch that began with the swift decline of Twin Peaks’ television popularity and continued for much of the ‘90s.
Over the years, however, Fire Walk with Me has been rightfully reassessed. After all, many of Lynch’s best-loved films defy conventional narrative. To criticize Eraserhead for its confusing storyline, or to rage at the difficulty of parsing its every image, would be in many ways to miss the point, but that doesn’t take away from any of that film’s power to convey intense anxieties about sex and childrearing, among other things. Similarly, Fire Walk with Me is awash with weirdness, but it also steadily builds a tremendous sense of dread and deals coherently – and painfully – with its central story of sexual abuse and growing despair. As a series, Twin Peaks filters familiar TV tropes through a surreal imagination: it’s a soap opera held up to a funhouse mirror. Fire Walk with Me is, as film critic Mark Kermode contended on his blog a few years ago, something else: an artful and supremely unsettling horror film.
Of course, to praise Fire Walk with Me for being an effective horror film might initially sound like repeating some of the criticisms leveled at it in 1992, just in a more admiring tone. Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C,” and argued that it might be “the most rarefied teen horror film ever made,” but this film is a far cry from Friday the 13th. A traditional slasher flick will often ask us to identify with the killer and the victims in turns, but the (usually female) victims are rarely given much character development. So even if we can briefly place ourselves in Victim #4’s shoes when she’s hiding in the woods and accidentally snaps a twig, our connection to the character is pretty shallow. Fire Walk with Me is different in that it finally makes Twin Peaks’ famous murder victim Laura Palmer tortured and real, and its true horrors come not from jump-in-your-seat scares but from a much deeper conviction that evil can sometimes exist in banal situations and, worse still, can become impossible to escape.
While the slasher movies that dominated mainstream horror in the eighties strained to top each other in terms of gore, one of the most disturbing scenes in Fire Walk with Me contains horror that is wholly psychological. It finds Laura’s father and eventual killer Leland Palmer grasping his daughter’s hand in his and complaining about the dirt that’s supposedly lodged under one of her fingernails. Laura has already begun to suspect that her father is also somehow BOB, the man who has been sexually abusing her from a young age (and the audience is already certain), which makes it hard to even find words for how gut wrenching it is a few moments later, when Leland roughly pinches Laura’s cheek, and, at his wife’s objection that Laura “doesn’t like that,” snaps, “How do you know what she likes?” It’s a nasty moment, made more so by the fact that both of Laura’s parents sit silently down to dinner shortly thereafter, waiting for Laura to wash her hands in an ugly parody of suburban domesticity.
Laura lacks any safe harbor. A scene with her football player boyfriend Bobby underscores the sense that the pair are only using each other: they fight until Bobby reminds Laura that he supplies the cocaine, then she turns on the charm. There’s a perfect moment near the start of the film where Bobby lays a kiss on the trophy case at the high school, where they keep Laura’s homecoming queen photo – it’s really her image that he loves. Meanwhile, Laura’s few relationships that aren’t exploitative splinter under the pressure of secrets that feel too massive to share and too strange to be believed. There’s an image from the film that stays with me: Leland/BOB standing at the top of the stairs in front of the Palmer family house, waiting and watching while Laura speaks with her other, secret boyfriend, the softhearted James Hurley. Leland’s looming figure is a stark reminder that the evil at work here will render even Laura’s most benign relationships impossible. (In a similar moment, Laura’s best friend Donna asks her why she allows herself to get caught up in prostitution and drugs, and before Laura can answer, we see Leland walk into the frame.)
Lynch’s noir-tinged 1986 film Blue Velvet explores suburban decay from an outsider’s perspective. In it, clean-cut Jeffrey Beaumont (Twin Peaks protagonist, Kyle MacLachlan) finds an ear in an open field and, too curious to look away, ventures into the world of blackmail, rape, and murder that’s been hiding beneath the wholesome surface of his small hometown. But Jeffrey can choose to come back to the surface, to the virtuous girl and loving family who are happy to have him. His home is a place of refuge. By contrast, Fire Walk with Me is a film where home is hell. It makes sense that some viewers, drawn to Twin Peaks by its loopy imagery and sly sense of humor, will want to look away from the horrors inherent in Laura’s story. Like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, they grow weary of the mystery that once intrigued them because the answers that they find are too bleak.
Nevertheless, I’ve come to feel that Twin Peaks would be missing something powerful if this film wasn’t part of the overall equation. The series, and the media hype that surrounded it in the early ‘90s, was at times guilty of fetishizing Laura, the pretty dead girl, and leering over the details of her lurid secret life. In August 1990, Sheryl Lee appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine expertly styled and wrapped in plastic. (The cover blurb read: “A little stiff at parties, but then, so are we!”) In the series pilot, with Agent Cooper as our surrogate, the audience is encouraged to break into Laura Palmer’s locked diary and crack open the Flesh World magazine that turns up in her safety deposit box. The fragments of clues revealed in the ensuing episodes encourage us to dream up all sorts of theories about Laura, to make breezy water cooler chat about her drug addictions and sex life. The film reminds us how grotesque the show’s vaunted secrets really are. The open-mouthed, dirtied corpse of murder victim Teresa Banks in Fire Walk with Me is not the stuff of Esquire covers, and the vivid boredom that plays across her face as she lies in bed with Leland in a flashback suggests that the underworld that both she and Laura inhabit is, for all its danger, pretty stultifying. Though rife with dreamlike imagery, Fire Walk with Me gives us a necessary reality check. It’s a gutsy and entirely unique film that gives Laura Palmer depth and life.