The year is 1992 and David Lynch has just come off of, arguably, two of the most successful years in his career. Twin Peaks was a critics darling, revered as one of the most groundbreaking television shows in recent memory. Concurrently, Wild at Heart (1990) received the coveted Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Then, things started to go wrong. ABC canceled the show after the ratings sharply declined in the second season after the murder of Laura Palmer was solved. Two other shows that Lynch worked on, American Chronicles and On the Air did not even last a full season. The proverbial icing on this rancid cake was the film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), which debuted at Cannes Film Festival in 1992 to a hostile reaction from the audience and received an unholy critical ass-kicking. It went on to commercial and critical failure in the United States. How did Lynch go from media darling to media pariah with overwhelming negative reaction towards Fire Walk With Me from even fans of the show?
Lynch ended the T.V. show with multiple cliff hangers – most significantly, Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was possessed by the evil spirit, BOB (Frank Silva), while his good self was trapped in a supernatural realm known as the Black Lodge. Instead of resolving this storyline (and many others), Lynch decided to make a prequel to the series. The filmmaker remembers, "At the end of the series, I felt sad. I couldn't get myself to leave the world of Twin Peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move and talk." Fire Walk With Me focuses on the murder investigation of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), who was killer BOB's first victim, and with the emphasis on the last seven days of Laura's life.
The 1990s have become known as the age of irony for the horror genre. Self-reflexive humor, as epitomized by the Scream trilogy, replaced formulaic slasher franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street during the 1980s. One of the few films that went against this trend was Fire Walk With Me. Lynch’s film is not usually regarded as a horror film per se, but if looked at closely, does contain many conventions of the genre (i.e. the final girl against the malevolent monster). However, the veteran filmmaker pushes these rules as far as they can possibly be stretched. Film critic Kim Newman observed in his review for Sight and Sound magazine that Lynch’s movie “demonstrates just how tidy, conventional and domesticated the generic horror movie of the 1980s and 1990s has become.”
Right from the opening credits, Lynch establishes that this film will not be like the T.V. series and also it’s horror genre credentials. A television is set to an abstract, white noise image with ominous sounding music provided by Angelo Badalamenti playing over the soundtrack. An axe comes crashing through the T.V. followed immediately by a woman’s piercing scream. This opening sequence establishes the dark, foreboding mood that will permeate the entire film. This also feels like Lynch's statement on the unfair cancellation of his show. It is easy to see why Fire Walk With Me was a shock to some fans of the show. The first third of the film sets up a sharp contrast to the series.
Like the beginning of Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971), the events of Fire Walk With Me are set in motion by the murder of a woman. Lynch also presents an inhospitable world: FBI agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) encounter resistance at every step of their investigation. They are given a cryptic briefing by their superior Gordon Cole (David Lynch); they are forced to deal with a belligerent local sheriff and his deputy (when they ask for the dead girl’s ring, the sheriff replies, “We’ve got a phone. It has a little ring.”); and the locals offer little help (“I don’t know shit from shinola!” says a man at the local diner). By and large, the detectives are unable to figure out the identity of the killer. This is certainly a far cry from the upstanding Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) and the friendly townsfolk of Twin Peaks.
One of the criticisms leveled at Fire Walk With Me was the lack of humor. However, the first third of the film is one of the best examples of Lynch's wry, absurdist comedic sensibilities. The first appearance of Agent Desmond has him and several other agents busting a school bus full of crying kids. It is a classic, surreal Lynchian image. Other examples of his dry sense of humor are Sam's estimation of how much the sheriff's office furniture is worth and how Desmond deals with the belligerent deputy. It is not what they say rather how they say it that makes these moments funny.
Donna: Do you think if you were falling in space that you'd slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?
Laura: Faster and faster, and for a long time you wouldn't feel anything, then you'd burst into fire, forever. And the angels wouldn't help you because they've all gone away.
Once the film goes back to Twin Peaks, the mood becomes noticeably darker and foreboding as the last week of Laura's life plays out. Lynch shows an unflinching depiction of a young woman consumed by drugs, sex and, most harrowingly and disturbing of all, a victim of incest by her father, Leland (Ray Wise) under the guise of being possessed by a malevolent supernatural force known only as BOB.
Twin Peaks is a particularly atmospheric setting with indications that something ominous lurks out in the woods. Laura not only meets her demise among the trees but a grove of trees also serves as an entry point into an otherworldly dimension where the killer resides. The film's most impressive, show-stopping sequence is Laura and Donna's (Moira Kelly) trip to a Canadian roadhouse with two men. This sequence is an intense audio-visual assault on the senses. The entire frame is saturated by a hellish red color scheme, punctuated by a pulsating white strobe light. Over the soundtrack is a deafening bass-heavy song with a rockabilly guitar twang cranked up so loud that the characters have to yell over top of it. This powerful audio-visual combination fully immerses the viewer in an unpredictable setting that echoes the scene at Ben's in Blue Velvet (1986) and the introduction of Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart.
Laura Palmer is the final girl archetype but deeply flawed. She is arguably one of Lynch’s most complex and fully realized characterizations. She immerses herself in all of these vices, which distracts from the painful incestuous relationship with her father and BOB’s desire to possess her. The push and pull of these opposing forces are too much for her and this only increases her self-destructive impulses. Sheryl Lee does an incredible job conveying Laura’s overwhelming sadness at the realization that the sweet girl she once was is rapidly disappearing and try as she might there is nothing she can do to stop it. Lee is able to show the different sides of her character. There is the confident, aggressive side that picks up strangers and has sex with them. There is the scared little girl that is dominated by her father. And there is the sweet high school girl whose reserves of inner strength — that she uses to fight off BOB — are gradually being depleted. It is an intricate portrayal that requires Lee to display a staggering range of emotion.
BOB is ostensibly the monster of the film. With his disheveled, unshaven look of a dirty drifter, he is the evil side of Leland and a frightening metaphor for the incestuous relationship between father and daughter. BOB is a demon of some sort, a serial killer who delights in taking on hosts, such as Leland, and using them as instruments of evil and to indulge in his depraved appetites. Kim Newman observed that, “In the monster father figure of Leland/BOB, Lynch has a bogeyman who puts Craven’s Freddy Krueger to shame by bringing into the open incest, abuse and brutality which the Elm Street movies conceal behind MTV surrealism and flip wisecracks.”
There are some truly frightening and unsettling set pieces in Fire Walk With Me. Laura comes home for dinner and her father scolds her for not washing her hands. The scene goes from being one of typical domestic strife to one of unsettling horror when he starts questioning her about a necklace with an intensity that is not the sweet Leland Palmer we know and love from the T.V. series. It is an uncomfortable scene that is beautifully played by Ray Wise who never goes over the top with his performance. The next scene shows Leland getting ready for bed with a menacing look on his face — he is clearly under the thrall of BOB. Then, something happens. It is like something washes over him as his expression shifts to one of sadness and he starts to cry. BOB has left him temporarily and Leland is back in control again but with the knowledge of how badly he treated Laura at dinner. He goes into her room and tells her how much he loves her. It is a touching moment, one of love and compassion, in an otherwise bleak and cruel film. Wise does an incredible job at conveying the subtle shifts of personalities, from the menacing BOB to the sweet Leland and the inner turmoil that exists in his character.
There are little touches, such as the twisted wife (Grace Zabriskie) who is driven crazy by her evil husband a la Cry of the Banshee (1970) where an equally evil husband (played by Vincent Price) also drove his wife insane. There is the truly frightening moment where Laura goes to visit Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen), a kindly shut-in to whom Laura delivers Meals on Wheels. She also confides in him and tries to convey the divided nature of herself and for a brief, startling moment, her evil nature makes itself visible to Harold, shocking both of them.
Even the birth of the film was beset by problems. The T.V. show had only been canceled for a month when it was announced that Lynch would be making a Twin Peaks movie. On July 11, 1991, Ken Scherer, CEO of Lynch/Frost Productions, said that the film was off because Kyle MacLachlan did not want to reprise his role as Agent Cooper. A month later, the actor changed his mind and the film was back on – albeit without cast members Lara Flynn Boyle and Sherilyn Fenn due to scheduling conflicts.
In a 1995 interview, Fenn revealed why she really opted out of the film. "I was extremely disappointed in the way the second season got off track. As far as Fire Walk With Me, it was something that I chose not be part of." As a result, her character was cut from the script and Boyle was recast with Moira Kelly (With Honors). MacLachlan also resented what had happened during the second season. "David and Mark were only around for the first series...I think we all felt a little abandoned. So I was fairly resentful when the film, Fire Walk With Me came round." Even though MacLachlan agreed to be in the film, he wanted a smaller role (he only worked for five days on the film), forcing Lynch and co-writer Robert Engels to re-write the screenplay so that Agent Desmond investigated the murder of Teresa Banks instead of Agent Cooper.
To make matters worse, Lynch's creative partner in the series, Mark Frost opted out of the film as well. The relationship between the two men had become strained during the second season when Lynch went off to make Wild at Heart; leaving Frost with what he felt was most of the work on the show. Frost was busy with his directorial debut, Storyville (1992), but one can read between the lines. His absence on Fire Walk With Me was his way of voicing his displeasure with Lynch.
Fire Walk With Me debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992 to a hostile reaction from both audiences and critics. Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, "Mr. Lynch's taste for brain-dead grotesque has lost its novelty." Her fellow Times reviewer, Vincent Canby agreed: “It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be.” USA Today gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it, "a morbidly joyless affair.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “In a strange way, Fire Walk With Me is tipped too far toward the dark side. What's missing is an organic vision of goodness. The movie is a true folly-almost nothing in it adds up-yet it isn't jokey and smug like Lynch's last film, Wild at Heart.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, "And though the movie ups the TV ante on nudity, language and violence, Lynch's control falters. But if inspiration is lacking, talent is not. Count Lynch down but never out.” The film's editor, Mary Sweeney, commented on why it was on the receiving end of such hostility: "They so badly wanted it to be like the TV show, and it wasn't. It was a David Lynch feature. And people were very angry about it. They felt betrayed."
To this day, Fire Walk With Me remains Lynch’s most maligned and underappreciated film. Fans of the show missed the folksy humor but that is not what the film is about — it is Laura’s last dark days. By paring down many of these elements that made the show endearing to its fanbase, it ended up alienating many of them. The film has aged well and is starting to enjoy a reappraisal of its merits. Sheryl Lee is very proud of it: "I have had so many people, victims of incest, approach me since the film was released, so glad that it had been made because it helped them to release a lot." To his credit, Lynch looks back on his film with no regrets. "I feel bad that Fire Walk With Me did no business and that a lot of people hate the film. I really like the film. But it had a lot of baggage with it.” The director may have upset fans of the show but for fans of his feature film work, Fire Walk With Me is more consistent with their much darker tone. Once the film shifts focus to Laura’s descent into darkness, Lynch is relentless in his depiction of her downward spiral — one of the most harrowing depictions of a person coming apart at the seams. As a result, Fire Walk With Me is one of the best and truly terrifying horror films ever to come out of the 1990s.
Persons, Dan. “Son of Twin Peaks.” Cinefantastique. October 1992.