Fire Walk With Me: Lynch’s Flawed Masterpiece

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think—is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

Having eventually watched the whole of Twin Peaks‘ original run last year, I finally got to the prequel film: Fire Walk with Me. Released two years after the show concluded and featuring most of the original cast, plus cameos from the likes of David Bowie, Keifer Sutherland, and Harry Dean Stanton, Fire Walk with Me was a critical disappointment at the time, and to be fair to those who dismissed it originally, it’s not hard to see why. It offers little in the way of answers or conclusions for the show and in some places confuses what was already clear.

By Episode 14 of Twin Peaks (“Lonely Souls”, probably the all-around best episode) the audience knows what happened to Laura Palmer, and the rest has been filled in by the series’s conclusion. Actually showing the audience what happened could well be seen as redundant and tasteless, and it’s very easy to imagine someone turning Fire Walk with Me off in disgust (as my mum did). It’s the definition of a flawed masterpiece, and we will get into those flaws. Either way, you absolutely do need to have seen Twin Peaks in order to appreciate Fire Walk with Me. Just because it’s a prologue, don’t think you can just walk in blind. You might not follow it much less, but it won’t feel the same. I tried going into Fire Walk With Me blind many years ago, and it confounded my attempts to appreciate it at every turn.

Fire Walk with Me is every bit as uneven as Twin Peaks was. The ten or so best episodes of Twin Peaks constitute some of the best television ever made, while the rest of it is slow, meandering, and often downright silly self-parodic soap opera. As for The Return, I’ll be honest and say I’ve only seen a few episodes so far, and I found myself less interested in it with each passing minute. In places, Fire Walk with Me also finds David Lynch at his worst, with an extended prologue surrounding the investigation into the death of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) that is mostly redundant and often annoying, saved only by the performances of Sutherland and Stanton and a brief fan-servicing appearance by the always wonderful Kyle McLachlan as Dale Cooper. Following Special Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) bully his way around the town of Deer Meadow and repeat beats from earlier in the show is frankly tedious, and the extended sequence with David Bowie feels like Bowie was a fan of the show and wanted to be in it, so they just came up with random stuff for him to do and let him pointlessly hijack the film for ten minutes. It says a lot about how good the second act is that I’m willing to put up with the first and still call this a horror classic.

Kiefer Sutherland, David Lynch and Chris Isaak as FBI Agents briefing one another at a remote airport

Part of me can’t quite blame anyone who checked out in the first half hour, but bear with the movie and it will reward your patience. The latter two-thirds comprise little less than one of the best horror films ever made and an undeniable highlight of Lynch’s career, offering perhaps the most complete glimpse of the true masterpiece Twin Peaks might have been: dark, eerie, atmospheric, heartbreaking, and intensely disturbing.

The remainder of the film covers the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life, as her self-destructive lifestyle reaches a crisis point and she begins to discover the nightmarish truth behind her ‘imaginary’ tormentor Bob. Ray Wise reprises his role as Laura’s father Leland and once again gives an astonishing performance, layered with torment and guilt while bursting with malevolence, sadism, and rage. Sheryl Lee meanwhile, is simply extraordinary. She gives a truly devastating performance as Laura: her daily life is wracked with fear, in desperate need of relief from a nightmare she cannot bring herself to speak the name of. She resorts to muting the synapses in her brain through hard drugs and anonymous degrading sex, but the impact of her downward spiral on those she does care for only engenders more guilt in her.

Her and Leland’s respective arcs reach crescendos that are overwhelming in their intensity and masterpieces of alarm. The pacing and development of each of these horror set pieces are flawless, and the emotions behind them are spot on. The scene when Philip (Al Strobel) accosts Leland and confronts him with the truth is one of the most unique and extraordinary expressions of horror to be found anywhere in cinema. The use of surrealist imagery in the film’s second half is as subtle and deliberate as in Lynch’s best work, rather than the obscure, slow randomness of the film’s prelude. Here, he knows precisely what buttons to push to get the right reaction from his audience and turn nonsense into nightmarish poetic expression.

The portrait of sexual abuse and its impact that the film presents is about as real as Lynch’s films have ever gotten, and it’s played with such force and intensity that it never needs to resort to cheap shocks or maudlin pity. Somehow the film manages to remain judicious, tactful, and frank despite the horrifying nature of the subject matter and the melodramatic surrealism used to portray it. Make no mistake though, this film does address child sexual abuse and, more distressingly, it doesn’t allow you to see the situation from outside. It pulls you into Laura’s head and lets you live with the effects of that kind of violation, not from a safe distance of dealing with those feelings in a nurturing and healing environment (a la Short Term 12, for example) but from right in the midst of the horror as it reveals itself. I can only compare it to Tim Roth’s 1999 masterpiece The War Zone, except if it played out not as a kitchen sink drama but as an artistic horror film.

Laura hides in the bushes outside her house, experiencing the horrific revelation of who her nocturnal attacker has truly been

The second act of this film is perfect, and the third act is well up there, too. It would’ve taken a miracle to make those inevitable, horrifying scenes feel artistically rewarding, and it’s to their credit that Lynch and his cast almost pull it off. I really cannot overstate Sheryl Lee’s contribution to this film and what an artistic achievement it is. We often think of directors and writers as artists but don’t as much think of actors along those terms, but Lee’s performance is a work of art unto itself, worthy of mention alongside Emilie Dequenne in Our Children or Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. The intensity and humanity she brings to the role bring to life a woman who we’ve heard so much about, much of it contradictory. Through her performance, Sheryl Lee resolves those contradictions beautifully. She makes Laura Palmer whole, real, and believable, and through the humanity she gives her, we feel a kind of salvation for Laura.

Twin Peaks was a landmark of television but very much an imperfect one, and this is replicated in this prequel. I appreciate the structure they were going for with the prologue, but it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t reinforce what follows any better than any other old thing could have. I fully accept the necessity of something of this nature to counterbalance the nightmare to come, but the whole Deer Meadow segment feels like a tiresome indulgence, and one for Lynch’s benefit more than the viewers’.

I can also appreciate the criticism of the film for being so morbid and joyless, it won’t be for everyone. Not everyone will have the stomach, the inclination, or even the need for a dark night of the soul this extreme. This isn’t a film one watches to be entertained, but to feel wrung out like a wet towel. To achieve catharsis and feel baptized. Art exists to explain the world to each other, or to re-explain the world to ourselves, and Fire Walk with Me has something to say about pain, about sacrifice, about fear, about sex, and about what it takes to carry those things around with you. You may find it will take something out of you, in which case, I’d steer clear, but perhaps, if you’re strong enough to stick with it, you’ll find yourself able to carry just a fraction more yourself once it’s over.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory, and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account. Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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