I’ll admit that there are two slightly sentimental reasons behind my 1992 choice – Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Firstly, Twin Peaks (the TV series) was one of the key programmes in my formative teenage years, an antidote to saccharine nature of TV those days (a lot has changed since) that struck a chord with me. Watching it some fifteen or so years later it still feels like a breath of fresh air. Secondly, if my memory serves me correctly this was the first 18 certificate film I saw at the cinema (for those trying to work out the maths, I was 17 – admittedly late for sneaking into cinema), one of those moments similar to buying your first pint that feels important at the time. As such, Twin Peaks: Fire Walks With Me doesn’t make the list due to it being a stand-out film from the year (although I still think it is one of the best from 1992), nor for being my favourite, but for being an important part of my teenage years.
It was going to explain so much. All of the answers that the TV studio had prevented us from having by cruelly pulling the plug were going to be answered. Answers to questions such as “What is the Black Lodge?”, and “Why was Laura Palmer killed?” would be clearly answered (I hadn’t seen any other David Lynch films at this point) in a definitive fashion. Except they weren’t – Lynch instead delivered a grubby tale of familial abuse, of a teenager trapped in a spiral of addiction and a situation where (a) death may be the only answer. This was far stronger fare than we’d been expecting, a truly adult film that abandoned the fantasy elements of the TV series in favour of creating a far stronger nightmare version of events, something closer to reality. Gone was the quirky humour, gone was much of the supporting cast and strange side show plots, the focus here was solely on what happens behind some closed doors, and the question of why we can’t see the obvious.
Key to this were two performances. Firstly, Sheryl Lee delivered one of the bravest performances of the decade as the doomed Laura Palmer, moving from minor teenage pre-occupations such as first love to recognition that the demon figure in her life was her father. Along the way she experiences fear, terror, abandonment but most crucially, love. Like many of Lynch’s films, love is the key to freedom – her it is love of her friends, in particular Donna Haywood (Moira Kelly, replacing Lara Flynn Boyle) that may be key to her salvation, such that it exists. Secondly, Ray Wise as her father who is at once doting and utterly terrifying as her abuser. Wise & Lynch offer no easy answers behind the reasons for her abuse, arguing that he’s as complicit in allowing the abuse as the demons that inhabit him (for once they are not a metaphor, Lynch still offers no explanation of their source). It’s difficult to answer the question of which is the more difficult role, both are fearless in their own way. Come the conclusion it’s difficult to see which of them is more the victim (as always, the true power of Lynch’s direction is that he doesn’t offer an easy answer). Unfortunately, due to the films relatively poor box office both sunk back into obscurity afterwards, Lee into a string of one off television appearances and Wise to the sort of cheap genre efforts he’d been involved with before.
Along the way to its doom ridden conclusion Lynch offers a series of nightmarish scenes – David Bowie screaming silently at a security camera, Laura’s tormentor emerging from the foot of her bed – chief amongst these “The Pink Room” sequence, a dense, claustrophobic trip into a personnel version of hell in the form of an underground club. As Angelo Badalamenti’s superb score blasts out of the screen rendering the dialogue indecipherable, Laura & Donna are drugged into performing greater acts of depravity by those that wish to exploit them until Laura finally comes to her senses as to what she may have exposed her friend to. Lynch offers the possibility of redemption amongst the squalor, but as always the nightmare never ends – redemption may come at a later stage, but to show it would lessen the impact of the tale.
Badalamenti’s score (and the sound design in general) contributes greatly to the overall sense of dread. Gone are the familiar themes of the TV show, when they reprise they often segue into more twisted versions of themselves. The music has a harder edge, it feels dirtier. The sound design is superb, strange ambient sounds from off screen sources often dominate or are exaggerated, the hum of a fluorescent light as it flickers over a body bag, the sound of a ceiling fan (something that still chills me to this day outside of the film) and the sound of the woods; dark, mysterious & full of dread. This is a film that sounds cold.
Lynch had made better films before – and has made better since – but Twin Peaks marks an interesting point in his career. Beforehand his films, whilst strange & unusual, often followed a conventional narrative. Afterwards (bar the odd career blip that is The Straight Story – worth seeing to see how Lynch tackles a normal film) he has experimented more and more with dreamlike narratives, culminating in the closest he has come to producing a masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. Twin Peaks has a conventional narrative, but explores it through the filter of a fever dream, never quite making sense in the same way as his earlier films. It’s not perfect, but it remains a fascinating companion piece to one of the defining TV series of the late eighties. For me it’s also one of those film that also marks a clear point in my life, a moment when I left safe films behind for far stronger fare.