Blue Velvet is now 30 years old. The film that brought us insane and tragic characters like Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens has been studied and debated for three decades now. We recently reported that Lynch’s new documentary will be out next spring, but today we are shining a spotlight on Blue Velvet on its anniversary along with a few of the director’s other works. Here are our thoughts on the bizarre and exceptional films of director David Lynch.
It’s hard to pin down what David Lynch’s masterpiece is. There are probably a few contenders, but in this author’s opinion, there is no question about the victor. Blue Velvet is a dark triumph in every facet of its twisted being.
Lynch would explore some of the same concepts years later in Twin Peaks, but Blue Velvet takes the idea of highlighting a peaceful community’s seedy underbelly and executes it in a much less obtuse way. One of the first images of the movie is a slow zoom into a perfect front yard, and as the camera digs deeper into the grass, we see all the dark and disgusting creatures that writhe inside.
The mystery of the film – Kyle MacLachlan’s boyish Jeffrey discovers a severed human ear in a field – gives way to a demented underworld of psychotic characters and the darkest of sexual gratifications. Isabella Rossellini is heartbreaking and hypnotic as broken lounge singer Dorothy Vallens. However, Dennis Hopper’s terrifying Frank steals the show. If there was ever a character in Lynch’s filmography that could substitute as the Joker, it’s Frank. It’s a bravura performance that is possibly Hopper’s best.
Blue Velvet remains as horrific and entrancing as ever. Thirty years later, it stills stands as one of Lynch’s perfect films. It’s chilling, mesmerizing, and warped in a way only David Lynch can do. It’s a stone cold classic. [Drew Dietsch]
David Lynch is keen on transporting you to other worlds. One of the first images he shows in 1977’s Eraserhead is another world. It’s a desolate planet, floating somewhere distant and emptier than our solar system. Then we’re shown a more familiar world — a bleak, colorless industrial district where Henry (Jack Nance) lives.
Henry’s life is a waking nightmare, a listless shuffle through a dank and filthy world. He’s got a girlfriend named Mary (Charlotte Stewart), who invites him over for dinner with her parents. But to Henry’s surprise, Mary has a baby. Or, at least, they think it’s a baby — it doesn’t exactly look human. Whatever the case may be, Henry and Mary attempt to care for the mewling inhuman thing. Things get way, way weirder from there.
Eraserhead is perhaps Lynch’s most direct horror film. It’s an anxiety-inducing look into what scares us about domestic life. Overflowing with tension and some of the ickiest creature effects ever shot in black and white, Eraserhead is one of my favorite Lynch pieces because it manages to be frighteningly relatable, but very detached from our world. Many of Lynch’s other works are anchored to recognizable places where tears at the corners start to reveal something underneath. Eraserhead is something else entirely. And it scares the hell out of me. [Travis Newton]
1984’s Dune is typically listed as one of David Lynch’s worst movies, if not the worst. Lynch himself has all but disowned it. Three versions of the movie exist, none of which feel like completed movies. The extended cut was so offensive to David Lynch he demanded an “Alan Smithee” credit for directing and “Judas Booth” for writing.
Dune is a movie with a lot of issues. It was a maddeningly ambitious project at the time, attempting an epic-scale sci-fi fantasy movie that was probably technically impossible in 1984. David Lynch’s weird aesthetic struggles in a blockbuster production. (One wonders how bad a Lynch Return of the Jedi might have ended up.) And the movie is littered with exposition as clunky as the occasionally terrible special effects.
So here’s where I turn that all around and say that I love this movie.
David Lynch’s version of Frank Herbert’s universe is dark and gothic. It is a mixture of his own fetishes and left-overs from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempted version, including H.R. Giger set design. Baron Harkonnen is a floating fat sexual predator with oozing boils all over his body. The Guild Navigator is a fish creature with a vulva-mouth. The Bene Gesserit are bald witches and Mentats have massively huge eyebrows. In more than a few ways this Dune is a psychedelic hamfest. The Baron is flying through the air in cheeseball villainy, voice-over narration covers exposition, Patrick Stewart plays the flute. It is a bizarre journey that Lynch’s own unique style helps make more than watchable.
Lynch could never match the spiritual power of the original novel, but he creates his own fascinating universe of Sandworms and Spice. [Eric Fuchs]
Wild at Heart
It’s easy to just write this off as an incomplete idea, David Lynch’s desire to do a Wizard of Oz allegory with Elvis overtones. Riding high on Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Lynch adapted the book of the same name and indulged his every whim. The resulting film is in some ways a great Lynch gateway and others a massive repellant.
Nicolas Cage is at his bats**t best as Sailor Ripley, a romantic with a violent side and more than a passing infatuation with “The King”. With the love of his life played by an impeccable Laura Dern, Sailor goes on a journey filled with oddballs, violence, sex, and loony thematic decisions. It’s as if Lynch is poking his audience to see how much they’re willing to be his confederates in this story. It works too. Even when the film starts to lose its way it finds something special or visceral and makes the journey worth it. Willem Dafoe’s messy end, a truly disturbing car accident death, or Oscar-nominated Diane Ladd’s fiery antics all feed a film whose moments outlive the whole.
Paired with True Romance, Wild at Heart makes for a great “hopelessly romantic” double bill in the early ’90s. It’s almost great. It’s also almost infuriating. So basically it’s quintessential Lynch. [Nick Nunziata]
This summer, a BBC poll of film critics listed Mulholland Dr. as the greatest movie of the 21st century (so far). That is quite an achievement for a movie that was originally a failed ABC pilot. Lynch retooled what he had made and threw in a final “ending”, an incomprehensible left turn for the film that explains none of the mysteries presented so far. How is a movie like this the best this century has produced?
Until that last twist, Mulholland Dr. has roughly two plotlines. One plot involves “Rita” (Laura Harring), a young woman who survives a car crash and suffers amnesia who struggles to find clues to her life. Along the way she meets Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), an aspiring actress who is willing to help. While they follow the breadcrumbs, Betty and Rita fall in love. Meanwhile, in Plot B, Hollywood director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) has his life thrown upside-down by mobsters who have stolen his movie. Then a few other scenes come along involving a horrifying creature behind a diner and a bumbling hitman, which do not seem to tie into anything. Every one of these normal plots are solidly directed, including a still career-best performance from Watts.
Mulholland Dr. is one of the few Lynch movies that people feel they have “solved”. Plausible explanations exist for what might really be happening. In a lot of ways, the explanations ruin the dream-like experience of the movie itself. Just being mere symbolism is almost too small for the events and images of Mulholland Dr. This movie is all tone and emotion – structure and plot are unnecessary. With Lynch, it is best to just let the ethereal visions and creeping paranoia take you away. [Eric Fuchs]