“It’s a strange world, isn’t it?”
— Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), BLUE VELVET
Yes, strange indeed… strange that I’ve never heard anyone seriously describe iconic filmmaker, artist and musician David Lynch as “a horror director.” But if you were to gauge an artist’s output by how frequently they employ certain motifs and images in their work, then it would be a lot easier to think of Lynch as a skilled crafter of screen nightmares. In fact, one might argue that true horror — not dark fantasy, but a warped and terrifying mirror of reality — is Lynch’s preferred medium, even more so than some genre filmmakers who deal in zombies, ghosts, aliens, werewolves, or vampires.
If there is one recurring “monster” throughout Lynch’s cinematic legacy, it might be called a demon… but those which populate his films are a far cry from the supernatural tormentors of religious myth: these demons are living manifestations of our darkest dreams… or perhaps our most twisted desires. Even seemingly pleasurable experiences — the comforts of home and family, or the passion of love and sex — are twisted, corrupted and poisoned by our own darker natures in Lynch’s worldview.
To celebrate this visionary of sublime darkness (whose MULHOLLAND DRIVE was just named “The Greatest Film Since 2000” by the BBC), we present ten scenes spanning nearly 50 years of David Lynch’s career — each one a self-contained nightmare, waiting to download itself into your mind. Enjoy!
THE ALPHABET (1968 Short): The Nightmare Takes Form
It’s hard to believe that Lynch has been trafficking in cinematic horror for half a century now… but even his earliest experimental films are proof that the aspiring multimedia artist had some truly frightening stuff swirling around in his cranium from the very beginning.
Based on a nightmare recounted to his wife by her young niece, THE ALPHABET incorporates elements that would become trademarks of his decades of cinematic work: surrealist imagery, disturbing sound effects (including a sped-up recording of a baby crying), and profusely leaking bodily fluids.
ERASERHEAD (1977): “Oh, you ARE sick!”
I’ve previously noted that Lynch’s first full-length film is like a waking nightmare from start to finish… but I’ll always remember one specific instance where the director took advantage of a relatively “quiet” interlude between protagonist Henry (Jack Nance) and his horribly-deformed “baby.”
The viewer is lulled into a temporary calm by the pulsing, ambient sound design (expertly crafted by Lynch and long-time sound collaborator Alan Splet). Lynch then employs a jump-cut and an accompanying “sting” on the soundtrack, provided by dissonant blast on a pipe organ, to remind you that there can be no peace for poor, miserable Henry, even as he tenuously embraces the idea of fatherhood.
THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980): The “Birth” of John Merrick
While it may be Lynch’s most “conventional” film, the Oscar-nominated historical drama about the sensitive and intelligent but hideously disfigured Joseph Merrick (renamed “John” in the film) also contains some of the director’s most haunting imagery.
Case in point: the film’s deeply frightening prologue, which visually plays upon the mythical origins of Merrick’s then-unknown disorder (he was posthumously diagnosed with a combination of neurofibromatosis and Proteus Syndrome). At the time, many people — including, it’s implied, Merrick himself — believed that his condition originated in the womb, as his mother was allegedly trampled by a circus elephant while pregnant.
BLUE VELVET (1986): Introducing Frank Booth
If you have an even passing familiarity with this classic, you know the prime mover behind the film’s horror elements is a single, monstrous but nevertheless human figure: the psychotic Frank Booth. In the role of a lifetime, Dennis Hopper shapes Frank into one of the screen’s most unforgettable psychopaths of all time (before Anthony Hopkins arguably took the top spot four years later with THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).
Every scene with Frank makes us sweat on behalf of in-over-his-head protagonist Jeffrey and Frank’s perpetually traumatized “girlfriend” Dorothy (Isabella Rosellini). But it’s our first encounter with Frank — and his twisted, sadistic sexual fetishes — that carves his snarling image into our brains forever. Even watching, with Jeffrey, through the slats of a closet door, we’re too scared to look… and too mesmerized to turn away.
[Warning: NSFW dialogue]
TWIN PEAKS (1990): Ronette Remembers
Lynch’s iconic entry into the small-screen world also happens to contain some of the most terrifying scenes ever recorded for any medium, TV or otherwise… and if you polled TWIN PEAKS viewers to cite the scariest moment from the show’s entire two-season run, I guarantee the winner by a vast majority will be the conclusion of the first episode of Season 2.
Just before the end titles appear, young Ronette Pulaski — who was in a coma for the entirety of the first season, after a near-fatal encounter with the supernatural fiend known as “BOB” — finally awakens with a gut-wrenching vision straight from Hell itself.
TWIN PEAKS (1990): “Meanwhile”
After the murderer of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) was revealed, Season 2 of TWIN PEAKS immediately began to lose its way, and mostly fizzled out among fans thanks to less-than-compelling side plots, too much emphasis on goofy humor, and less participation from Lynch himself.
But when the director returned to helm the series’ climactic episode, he reminded fans of his unique mastery in the field of horror by turning out some of the show’s most surreal, cryptic and nightmarish material… including perhaps the most terrifying montage to take place in the otherworldly “Black Lodge.”
TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992): “What does Bob say?”
Fans of the series’ satirical spin on prime-time TV drama were (to put it mildly) scared off by the incredibly dark, sexually warped and brutally violent vision Lynch brought to the TWIN PEAKS big-screen prequel. It’s recently enjoyed a cult revival — especially thanks to the long-awaited release of the film’s “Missing Pieces” (part of the recent TWIN PEAKS Blu-ray release), but I’d argue that fans of Lynch’s supreme horror skills were already fully aboard.
Scary scenes abound (even the opening titles manage to goose the audience), but for my money, the biggest shock comes during a suspenseful but otherwise “normal” exchange between Laura Palmer and her agoraphobic friend Harold (Lenny Von Dohlen), after she discovers pages have been torn out of her secret diary by the diabolical BOB.
LOST HIGHWAY (1997): Fred’s Dream
Another landmark of horror and surrealism from an artist intimate with both concepts, this film was misunderstood by most audiences — including a lot of Lynch fans — but it’s high time LOST HIGHWAY receives recognition as a horror film for the ages.
There are numerous scenes of mounting dread and disorienting suspense scattered throughout the body-swapping central tale, as well as some graphically gory moments of murder… but whenever a character in a David Lynch film has a dream, there’s a pretty good chance the results aren’t going to be pleasant for anyone involved. Case in point, here’s a dream within a dream (possibly within another dream) experienced by the film’s protagonist Fred (Bill Pullman), which somehow manages to be terrifying and kinda goofy at the same time.
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001): It Waits Behind Winkies
Originally conceived as the pilot for a television series about the dark underbelly of Hollywood, MULHOLLAND DRIVE was rejected by network execs. Thankfully, it was this very rejection that birthed one of Lynch’s most celebrated and fascinating epics. Despite being elaborately reworked for the big screen, the story’s TV origins still show through — particularly in episodic scenes scattered throughout the film, involving characters with no overt connection to the central plot.
One of those involves two men who meet in a quaint Hollywood diner called Winkies — a place one of them says features prominently in a nightmare, in which he saw something horrifying behind the dumpster out back. With his friend at his side, he decides to confront his fears head-on… and it doesn’t go well for him.
INLAND EMPIRE (2006): Susan Sees You
Lynch’s last theatrical feature to date is also arguably his most baffling — which comes as no surprise, considering the director himself admits to making up most of the story on the fly, randomly writing and shooting material (mostly with consumer-grade digital video equipment) as the ideas struck him, then inventing connective tissue to “link” those scenes together.
As confusing and impenetrably dense as this monolithic three-hour final cut may seem, it’s anchored by a career-defining performance by long-time Lynch collaborator Laura Dern, who pushes herself in some pretty crazed directions in the name of art. One of those directions, as you’ll see, is running straight at your face with a silent, demonic scream…