Reviled by many critics and ignored by audiences, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) has unjustly slipped under many film fans’ radars. Dig below the surface, scrape away years of dirt, and you’ll reveal a rich and multifaceted cinematic gem.
Sitting down to watch TPFWWM again, I am reminded of two things. First: it is one of David Lynch’s finest films as a director, and second: it is one of the greatest horror films ever made, despite the fact it has never been categorised as such and you’ll never find it in the horror section of your local online video download store-hub.
Serving as a prequel to Twin Peaks, the TV series, TPFWWM tells one story that operates on two distinct levels. The film assembles the facts behind the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life, a high school prom queen played with tortured fatalism by Sheryl Lee. Key to understanding Laura is the revelation of the sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of the mysterious “Bob”.
Overlaid like an acetate cartoon-cell on top of the very everyday town of Twin Peaks, is the supernatural world of The Black Lodge. This is a place outside of conventional space and time whose inhabitants sometimes leave to live in a small room above a convenience store. These entities exist to inflict pain on humankind, the suffering represented by the creamed corn they consume with each soul. They release one of their own, Bob, to possess someone close to Laura with the intention of corrupting her and condemning her to torment in The Black Lodge. An equally valid counter-interpretation is that this is only in the mind of the actual perpetrator of these acts.
Our film opens on a TV screen displaying static. An axe thuds abruptly into the TV as sparks fly and a woman screams. This violently demonstrates that Twin Peaks the TV show is in the Past. Dead. Finished.
In the FBI’s Philadelphia headquarters, David Bowie’s Agent Jeffries appears for a few minutes, after 2 years missing in the field. Jeffries points accusingly at Cooper (a clue to his eventual fate) and proceeds to explain to the assembled agents of his imprisonment in The Black Lodge and the creatures he met there. Jeffries attended one of their meetings to decide the fate of Laura Palmer at the cost of his soul. His tale told, he promptly disappears again.
Meanwhile, in an unfriendly town which appears to be the emotional opposite of Twin Peaks, Agent Chet Desmond, played by Chris Issac, accompanied by Agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland channelling Stan Laurel) investigate the murder of Theresa Banks. As Desmond closes in on the otherworldly fate of girls claimed by Bob, he too disappears without trace.
There are several scenes in TPFWWM which are instantly cinematic, unique and bold enough to distance the film from its broadcast heritage. The 10-minute “Pink Room” sequence takes place in a sleazy bar, almost all sound drowned out by pounding, rhythmic music. We can nearly discern snippets of dialogue but the overall effect is exactly the same as trying to hold a drunken, dreamy conversation in a noisy bar or club. The result is hypnotic, unsettling and ultimately leads to one of Laura’s redemptive acts as she saves her friend from a similar fate to her own. (Later DVD releases have subtitles come up at this point, but I know that the original European cinema print has no subtitles and the atmosphere it conjures is all the better for not having them.)
In another powerful scene we encounter Bob in Laura’s bedroom. The intrusion is so unexpected and visceral that we cannot still our hearts from leaping when it comes. Maybe it’s because we don’t expect the standard jumps and scares of a standard horror film here, that we are so taken aback by this.
Lynch has always been a great and unique sound designer. The eerie and omnipresent industrial rumble over Eraserhead springs to mind, or the noise the cadaver makes when moved early on in TPFWWM. When Laura and her father are accosted by a one-armed man on the road into town, his insane screeching and the revving of the car engine combine to drown out the words in a deafening overload of hate and anger.
Yes, you may gain slightly more satisfaction from TPFWWM if you’ve seen Twin Peaks the series, and for fans of the television show most of the major players do appear in cameos, but as a stand-alone film concerning abuse, incest, loss of identity and the downwards spiral of a confused high-school girl, it is brave and fearless. As a fable about possession and evil inflicted by spirits from another world, an inter-dimensional war between gods centring on a small town and a supernatural horror, it is also triumphant. A game of two halves certainly, but both will chill, disturb and unnerve you more than most so-called horror films out there.