Release Date: August 28th, 1992 (US); November 20th, 1992 (UK)
Genre: Horror; Mystery; Thriller
Starring: Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Kyle MacLachlan
Before getting into the nitty-gritty — and this really is nitty and gritty — Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me opens with a 25 minute minisode. We watch as FBI Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) investigate a murder in Deer Meadow that reeks with familiarity. While discussing cryptic messages Sam asks, “What exactly did that mean?” to which his partner replies, “I’ll explain it to you”. Fans of the television show have asking the same question and hoping for the same answer since the second season of Twin Peaks concluded, but answers are in short supply here.
David Lynch’s movie acts as a prequel to his cult TV hit, and is film that pitches its tent firmly in the past. Lynch only lightly touches upon the show’s cliffhanger ending — if you haven’t seen Twin Peaks and have plans to see it, stop reading now — instead opting to focus on the events leading up to the murder of Laura Palmer. Risky? Certainly. Frustrating? Probably, though the news that another season is on the way has likely rendered much frustration obsolete. Fire Walk with Me brings the almost mythical figure of Laura Palmer to life, and does so brilliantly.
Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is a high school student plagued by an evil spirit known as BOB (Frank Silva), who appears in her uncanny visions and demented dreams. In Twin Peaks, she has already been killed by BOB and Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called in to find the then unknown culprit. Here, the events leading up to Palmer’s death are explored in detail, including her drug addled experiences and her father Leland’s (Ray Wise) own demonic possession.
The Chester-Sam preamble exudes a classic Lynchian essence, lulling us into a false sense of security from the get-go. Life in Deer Meadow looks, sounds and feels worse than life in Twin Peaks: the coffee at the local sheriff’s station is outdated; the owner of the diner is old, abrasive and foul-toothed, far removed from Norma Jennings; and there are no food specials either. Not even a sliver of cherry pie. You begin to miss spending time in Twin Peaks, its oddness and peculiarity and vitality in short supply. And we never truly revisit that kooky town.
Coop appears under false pretences — despite captaining the television show, he’s only a bit part player here (primarily due to MacLachlan’s return worries). Angelo Badalamenti’s twangy score reverberates as Ron Garcia’s cinematography hones in on that recognisable welcome sign, but it soon becomes obvious that Fire Walk with Me is a different animal to Lynch’s small screen work. It is Laura’s story, which is by and large miserable and horrifying. “Do you think that if you were falling in space you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?” best friend Donna muses. Laura assuredly hits back, “Faster and faster”. That’s her predicament. Spiralling without a harness.
Sheryl Lee’s range is impressive. Her demeanour effortlessly switches from dreamy, to seductive, to ponderous, to deranged, to hysterical, depending on BOB’s stranglehold at any given moment. Despite knowing the finality of her arc, a dramatic heft still remains and that is largely due to Lee’s sympathetic portrayal. We want her to survive for moral reasons, but also because we know her interactions with Coop et al would be compelling and fun (granted, her survival would render Twin Peaks pointless in the first place). Enya-esque music adds to Laura’s angelic qualities, the dulcet and delicate inflections indicating an impending loss of innocence.
Performances are over the top at times, a by-product of Lynch’s soap opera brand. The director tones down any potential melodrama though, instead seeking out scares. And there are some properly terrifying moments; at one point BOB hides awkwardly in Laura’s room, poised in a corner behind a chest of drawers. The scene is actually a jump scare, but one done well — it chills for longer because BOB’s uncouth posture and uncontrollable lunacy can do little else but leave a lasting impression. Frank Silva has always infused the Twin Peaks landscape with an edge-of-your-seat mania, and he steps it up another notch here.
The persiflage-like comedic oddities that richly emboldened the television show aren’t around. They certainly wouldn’t fit with Fire Walk with Me’s dark themes, but you do miss them. In their place is a mountain of debauchery, nudity and swearing. A seemingly everlasting Pink Room (a strip club of sorts) scene reflects this grimness. The floor resembles a destitute beach, with fag ash for sand and beer bottles for seaweed. Loud music means we need subtitles to understand what various characters are saying — sound is used efficiently throughout the film to amp up tension. It drags on a bit too long, but the room’s red, flashing textures do imitate hell and effectively mirror Laura’s harrowing plunge.
To the filmmaker’s credit, an air of horror lingers over every second of the movie. It helps that a pre-existing television show has already laid the groundwork as far as worldbuilding goes, and therefore all that remains is to plug holes with the correct tonal density. Lynch opts for a dark, thick substance that stinks of constant dread. He is essentially unpacking the mindset of a psychopath. As Leland Palmer succumbs to the nefarious tendencies of BOB, his fatherliness drains. He increasingly exudes a crazed Jack Torrance vibe; one dinner scene in particular communicates unbridled domestic terror.
This is also Leland’s story, but viewed from Laura’s external perspective. Lynch takes us through his psychopathic functionality, the primal loss of control, where what was once unlawful becomes lawful. In a way, this type of destabilised humanity can only be explained by inexplicable mysticism, an aspect explored with greater verve in Twin Peaks. Laura, able to fend off BOB’s corruptness but not his presence, faces a different type of corruption: she becomes a drug and sex addict, someone haunted by immorality.
If you are well-versed in the television show you’ll know where the film is headed, yet Lynch manages to frame the ending in a somewhat positive manner without jeopardising the preceding terror. Relief is the overarching emotion, perhaps a fitting tonal precursor to Twin Peaks. These moments of respite are uncommon in Fire Walk with Me, a genuinely underrated horror gem. That’s a lot of garmonbozia.
Images copyright (©): New Line Cinema