David Lynch’s recent announcement that he and co-writer Mark Frost would be returning to the town of Twin Peaks, Washington for a limited series of nine episodes was met with excitement by the show’s fans. This new third series is scheduled to appear in 2016, 25 years after the original two season run finished, and it will re-unite most of the original cast members. Some journalists have expressed their hope that long-held questions regarding the fate of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and others will be answered, though the cinematic output of Lynch and the previous incarnation of Twin Peaks on TV both suggest that further mysteries should be expected rather than the neat resolutions of old plot threads.
Though it initially concentrated on the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Twin Peaks ended up as an entirely different beast after declining ratings in the second season famously resulted in studio pressure to reveal the identity of Palmer’s killer early; Lynch didn’t want to do this but his hand was forced, and he had little involvement with the bloated second-half of that season as a result, briefly returning to direct the show’s extremely weird finale (though it must be said there are a handful of good episodes in the second half of season two, and many of the directors involved also worked on the acclaimed first season, so there was some continuity).
The second season accentuated the fact that, at its heart, Twin Peaks was a spoof of daytime soap operas, but as it wore on the mix of unsettling darkness and comic farce became ever more jarring and extreme; the balance between the two disparate styles is something that Lynch, Frost and several other directors handled masterfully in the first season and the first third of the second season, and ultimately it’s a real shame that Twin Peaks spiralled out of control near the end, looking towards several new and previously-minor characters for inspiration in a desperate fashion.
Lynch decided to ditch most of the humour when making the disturbing prequel / epilogue film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which mainly focuses on Laura Palmer’s interactions with friends, family and acquaintances in the days leading up to the murder.Gone are several key characters from the TV show, such as Michael Ontkean’s noble sheriff Harry S. Truman, Joan Chen’s doomed sawmill owner Jocelyn Packard, Sherilyn Fenn’s teasing teen Audrey Horne and Richard Beymer as her unscrupulous father Ben. Also missing is Lara Flynn Boyle, who played Laura’s best friend Donna Hayward in the original series; her part is played here by Moira Kelly. The absence of Fenn and Flynn Boyle – who apparently didn’t get on during the filming of the TV series – was originally attributed to schedule clashes, but the latter claimed a few years later that she and other members of the cast were left disillusioned by the lack of involvement of Lynch and Frost during the filming of the second season. Kyle MacLachlan, so integral to the TV series, was also uninterested in working on the film for the same reason; his Dale Cooper appears in Fire Walk With Me in a reduced role that required only five days’ work.
Instead of a reliance on old favourites the film features a lengthy FBI-centric prologue featuring cameos by David Bowie, Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland and Harry Dean Stanton, and although all four tap into Lynch’s peculiar blend of oddness successfully, none of the new characters are actually crucial to the plot; that said, this is an interesting early example of the story-within-a-story structure that Lynch would later develop to such acclaim in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Lynch and Frost always favoured using the law enforcement agencies as outlets for the show’s quirky humour, though, and that happens again here: the director even reprises his role as the hard-of-hearing FBI chief Gordon Cole, replete this time with a bizarre dancing sidekick called Lil (Kimberly Anne Cole), though there is sadly no place for David Duchovny’s cross-dressing agent Dennis/Denise Bryson.
It’s a lighter opening act with one or two sinister moments, but after half an hour or so of FBI-related activity the film’s tone changes dramatically when Lynch relocates to the town of Twin Peaks itself. The production design is essentially the same as the TV show: drawing heavily from the 1950s with occasional reminders that we are actually in the 1990s, although Lynch keeps it simple by using a few key locations: the school, the roadhouse and the Palmer household, primarily. At first sight the town is representative of a clean and safe small-town America: it’s respectable, with pictureseque surroundings, everyone knows each other and you can picture Jimmy Stewart wandering down the high street carrying a pile of Christmas gifts. But like the TV series one of the main concerns for Lynch and Frost is duality, and the town’s name doesn’t contain the word ‘Twin’ for nothing.
This is actually one of Lynch’s darkest movies to date, and possibly even the closest he has come to making a straight-up horror / slasher film, as Palmer’s life spirals out of control and sinister forces close in on her. There are substantial roles in this section of the film for Ray Wise (Leland Palmer, Laura’s father) as well as James Marshall and Dana Ashbrook as her two strung-along boyfriends James Hurley and Bobby Briggs, while the characters Leo Johnson (Eric Da Rae), Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz), Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) and Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) also return from the TV series, as do several characters associated with the show’s supernatural Red Room and Black Lodge settings.
The scenes where Lynch focuses on the strange, ghostly figures of the Black Lodge are the most unnerving here, although the sequence in which Palmer’s murder takes place is particularly gruesome, with more than a hint of cheapo 1970s exploitation cinema about it. The decision to focus on the supernatural aspect of the story rather than the various sub-plots that exist across the town ensures we get to enjoy the director at his most macabre: there’s a great section, for example, in which Leland and Laura are accosted while driving by the character Mike, the one-armed man portrayed by Al Sobel, which is utterly chilling; additionally the regular appearances of Mrs Chalfont (Frances Bay), her ghostly grandson and The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) are as unsettling as they were in the TV show. Critics disagreed, suggesting the film was too grotesque and downbeat, and it became the 20,000th film to be booed at Cannes since records began, with Lynch receiving a chorus of hisses from immature journalists when he walked into a press conference after a screening.
After the film was widely (and unfairly) panned Lynch didn’t seem to be keen on taking Twin Peaks any further. He and Frost had already fallen out by this point, although that issue now appears to be resolved, and it’s good news that they are both about to return to their fantastical creation. Watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me before seeing the TV series would be a mistake, as knowledge of the show’s plot and the background of the characters is essential to understand what is going on here (not that that will ensure that you understand everything in Fire Walk With Me, of course: some of it is as perplexing and hard to decode as you’d expect); this doesn’t work as a standalone film and that’s possibly the main reason for the negative reviews it received at the time of release, but it’s a worthwhile companion piece to the TV series and fans of Lynch’s ability to creep-out and wrong-foot his audience will find much to enjoy, even if it is somewhat unbalanced here.
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch, Robert Engels
Starring: Sheryl Lee, Moira Kelly, Ray Wise, Kyle MacLachlan, Harry Dean Stanton, Frank Silva, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Isaak, David Bowie
Running Time: 135 minutes