All of the surrealist genius David Lynch’s films are in some way defining, varying their focus on different elements or tropes of his style. Lynch is known for his use of dream sequences to either expose the unconscious minds of his characters or to leave clues to the overarching plot through oblique imagery and dialogue, diving deep into the criminal underbelly of seemingly idyllic locales and a lack of linear narrative, often splitting roles across different timelines or planes of reality. While by the end of the film there’s usually enough information to piece together the narrative, as you’re watching it’s often unclear when or why these temporal shifts happen and what one may mean for the plot of the other, but the fun is in the not knowing.
Shot on black and white film on a shoestring budget over four years, Lynch’s debut feature film is an exemplary exercise in tension, body horror and the absurd. Even from his first film his unique vision comes fully formed. Tiny chickens twitch and ooze as they are carved; slow, stilted dialogue gives way to sudden bursts of inappropriate emotion and long, drawn out dream sequences break up the flow of the main plot.
And then there’s the baby. The film follows Henry (Jack Nance), a man who has inadvertently gotten his girlfriend pregnant and the resulting effect that the child has on their lives. Only the baby is not human, it’s some kind of grotesque, malformed…thing that’s usually whining in the background. It looks horrible and Lynch has never shared what he did to create the prop, although theories suggest that it’s a preserved sheep stomach or some other grim animal off cut. It also sets the precedent for great music and sound design in Lynch films with the simultaneously creepy and catchy ‘In Heaven’, a song sung by the Lady in the Radiator who appears in Henry’s dreams, and the constant ambient industrial whirring which is a massive part of how the tone of the film is constructed.
After an initially poor box office showing it found success as a midnight movie and eventually became a key inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with the acclaimed director showing Eraserhead to the cast and crew to show them the kind of unsettling feel he wanted his masterpiece to have. It’s my favourite Lynch film and, while the TV show Twin Peaks may be more of an accessible initial entry, it’s the ideal starting point for anyone who wants to get into Lynch’s work in film at least.
The Elephant Man (1980)
After Eraserhead began to get buzz, Lynch was tapped to direct the historical drama The Elephant Man and it was his first commercial success. Telling the story of the real life freak show feature turned medical marvel Joseph Merrick, the film showed that Lynch could pull heart strings just as well as creep audiences out. A lot of this comes from the cast; John Hurt’s performance in the lead role is stellar, as is Anthony Hopkin’s turn as Dr. Frederick Treves who attempts to treat Joseph and encourages his socialisation. On the directing side, Lynch’s style is perfect for the dark, dingy Victorian London and a pivotal scene in which Merrick is chased through a train station by a mob is incredibly cathartic. It gained Lynch his first Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay and showed the industry that not only was he skilled artistically, but he could make films that sell too.
Twin Peaks (1990-91)
Lynch teamed up with writer Mark Frost for the surrealist soap opera/murder mystery which permanently etched his influence into popular culture. The premiere was watched by over twenty million people and the question ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ dominated water cooler conversations across America. The iconic first ‘red room’ dream sequence with its red curtains and chevron flooring is referenced all the time in other shows and was many people’s first exposure to the kind of surrealism that Lynch had been exploring for years in his own films. The cast is great, with so many iconic and memorable characters like Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and David Lynch’s own Gordon Cole. Above all of these though is Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the murdered girl whose tragic backstory is gradually unearthed throughout the first series, the first half of season two and eventually put to film in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). No spoilers, but there’s not many characters in all of TV who are as well developed as her, despite her not even appearing outside of dream sequences in the show itself.
There’s a massive dip in quality after the reveal of the killer in season two with random subplots eating up most of the airtime, some of which are brilliant in their ridiculousness and some being the cringiest shit ever put to film (looking at you, James Hurley). The quality picks up again towards the finish of season two and it ends on one of the best cliffhangers of all time. Alas, the damage was already done and the show was cancelled, only to resurface just this year (keep reading).
Lynch and Frost turned the medium of TV on its head and created arguably the earliest example of the ‘premium’ TV that dominates todays landscape, with shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld that similarly aspire to filmic levels of storytelling and quality. Angelo Badalamenti’s score is equally as incredible and the soundtrack album sold massively on it’s own merit, with tracks like ‘Falling’, ‘Into the Night’ and, of course, ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’ defining the show just as much as it’s characters and story did. It’s almost like a key to Lynch’s other work, with its reasonably coherent story easing the viewer in to the more surreal elements. If you want to get started with Lynch, this is the place to do it.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
The consensus ‘best Lynch film’ (in fact it was voted the best film of the 21st century in a critics poll), Mulholland Drive is the story of Betty (Naomi Watts), a young actress arriving in Los Angeles for the first time, and Rita, a woman who has sustained amnesia in a car crash when Betty finds her in her aunt’s house as she moves in. The film begins as a neo-noir and centres on the shady machinations of a Hollywood studio and Betty and Rita’s mission to figure out who Rita was before the crash. However, just as everything seems to be coming together, the film takes a sudden and dramatic left turn, that I won’t spoil, which completely flips everything that’s seen before it. It takes a while after this turn for everything to slot back into place but it does so in time for a brilliant final scene and one of Lynch’s best horror sequences.
While Lynch’s films usually got very mixed receptions, apart from Eraserhead which was so unlike anything else around at the time critics had to take notice, Mulholland Drive garnered almost universal praise. This is likely because a lot of the stuff critics didn’t like about films like Lost Highway (1997) (split timelines, seemingly random role switching, supernatural beings that live in bins behind diners) was implemented in the format of a noir which gave some sense of structure and meaning to all the weird shit. For much of the film, the audience only has a slight idea about what is going on and it’s this that creates such a huge sense of foreboding and makes the moments of meaning and progression feel all the more important, only for them all to be ripped away in an instant then eventually decontextualised into a wider narrative. Basically it gave them a lot of stuff to write about.
Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
The third season of Twin Peaks arrived over 25 years after the end of season two but it was so worth the wait. While it may not have done the numbers of the original series relatively speaking, the fact that it even aired on TV is an achievement in itself considering just how batshit insane it is. Billed as an eighteen hour film in chunks rather than a traditional TV show, the show progresses at an almost glacial pace for a couple of its parts and could have perhaps done with two hours being left on the cutting room floor, but when it’s good, it’s incredible. From the adventures through time and space in the first couple of episodes through the art film origin story of Part 8 (feat. Nine Inch Nails!) to the Mulholland Drive on steroids twist in the finale which literally tears up everything, it sometimes feels like a victory lap for Lynch’s whole career. And not even in that it just touches on some of his recurring themes or tropes, some parts feel like deliberate attempts to emulate his previous successes. The use of body horror and elements of the aforementioned Part 8 feel like a cosmic Eraserhead, there are call backs to the soap opera of the original run of Twin Peaks and it’s most surreal moments reach Inland Empire’s levels of opacity.
All this said, it can’t be denied there are a couple of moments which are…questionable. David Lynch having his character being doted on by attractive women in most of his scenes can get quite grating and there’s a climactic scene in the penultimate episode involving a character wearing a green glove which descends into ridiculousness despite all the shakey cam and Lynchian horror happening around it. But these are few and and far between and completely negated by moments like Michael Cera’s hilarious cameo, Laura Dern’s character reveal and the final scene which goes from frustrating as hell to brilliant in the space of one line. It’s simultaneously weird, emotional, funny, horrific, avant-garde, soap opera, fan service and a fuck you to them. In a word, it’s Lynch.
Notes on a couple of omissions: Dune may have been defining in that it made Lynch swear he’d never do another film where he didn’t have final cut again (the studio understandably butchered Lynch’s original four hour cut), Blue Velvet (1986) is perhaps his most direct reckoning with the theme of a suburban dark underbelly and Inland Empire (2006) is undoubtably his most uncompromising, with zero commercial aspirations, no fucks given implementation of dream logic. A final extra shout out to Wild At Heart (1990) if you want a comical/creepy road movie with Wizard of Oz references, Nicolas Cage making far too big of a deal out of a snakeskin jacket and Willem Dafoe as one of the most loath-able men in film history.
Words by Jack Hollis