David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), a neo-noir tale of mystery and perversion set in small-town USA, paved the way to Lynch’s hit foray into the world of television. Co-created with Mark Frost, Twin Peaks pretty much changed TV dramas forever, became an obsession for viewers and, when it was cancelled in 1991, after a second season which ended on one of the maddest and most infuriating cliff-hanger scenes ever devised, entered the realms of cult fandom, with yearly international festivals devoted to its every aspect.
Set to return for a third season in 2017, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks sure do have a lot in common.
The Small Town Full of Secrets
Lumberton, North Carolina is like a first-look glimpse of what would become Twin Peaks, Washington. A major connecting thread is lumber production and saw mills as a key industry. Full of quirky characters and unsettling imagery, Lynch’s make believe worlds are also rich in echoing quaint aspects of middle-class America and locations – diners, high schools, suburban homes with picket fences – but underneath all that is an environment full of danger, horror and violence. Once you hit the wrong side of the tracks, the mood changes significantly. “Now it’s dark,” as Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), Blue Velvet’s master psycho, puts it.
Lumberton and Twin Peaks are places full of secrets. “Secrets are dangerous things, Audrey,” Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) cautions teenage snooper, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), a character who has a lot in common with Blue Velvet’s own Jeffrey Beaumont (McLachlan), not least their peeping tom penchant for hiding in closets and eavesdropping.
Blue Velvet marked the first collaboration between Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti. The Blue Velvet score runs the gamut from strings-heavy 1950s melodrama pastiche compositions to what is instantly recognisable as the future sound of Twin Peaks. When the cost of acquiring This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song to the Siren’ proved prohibitive, the pair cooked up their own tune. Mysteries of Love is a dreamy number with a synthesiser melody that washes over you. Sung by Julee Cruise, her plaintive, ethereal voice would again be used with superb results, when she appeared in Twin Peaks as the leather-clad singer in The Roadhouse. The Nightingale, Into the Night and the achingly beautiful Questions in a World of Blue (heard in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, 1992) provided Twin Peaks with such haunting music.
Jeffrey and Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) nose around into the life of troubled lounge singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), and come to regret it. Lynch and Frost re-used this Blue Velvet plot device – teen detectives working a case in their spare time – to winning effect. James Hurley (James Marshall), Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), Maddie Ferguson (Sheryl Lee) and Audrey Horne, launch investigations into Laura Palmer’s death, uncovering evidence and shocking revelations not only about the doomed prom queen, but also the town’s residents.
Donna, James and Maddie are clear-cut goodies, but Jeffrey and Audrey both have a streak of perversity running through them. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy tells Jeffrey. He replies: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” Despite their attraction to dark things, Jeffrey and Audrey are ultimately innocents shook by their experiences. “Why are there people like Frank?” the college boy inquires, mystified and wounded by the evil he’s witnessed.
What Lynch does so winningly is make dreams and dreaming slide from romantic starting points or corny sentiments into nightmarish notions of unescapable possession.
Dreams and Dreaming
Given Lynch is American cinema’s great pop surrealist, dreams and dreaming feature strongly. But what he does so winningly is make dreams and dreaming slide from romantic starting points or corny sentiments into nightmarish notions of unescapable possession. Twin Peaks’ jock bad boy, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), playfully telling middle-aged waitress Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) “I’ll see you in my dreams,” and her replying, “Not if I see you first,” is innocuous enough, but in Lynch’s febrile imagination this back and forth could be perceived as way more than jokey banter.
In Blue Velvet Frank Booth, one of the scariest movie villains of all time, transforms Roy Orbison’s soppy pop ditty, In Dreams, into a psycho-sexual threat: “In dreams, I talk to you. In dreams, I walk with you. In dreams, you are mine, all of the time.”
Killer BOB (Frank Silva) and Frank are unparalleled sinister creations. They are disgusting, depraved, evil, frightening, wicked. They have zero redeeming qualities. Neither is it a stretch imagining gas-huffing maniac Frank sitting on a sofa in the Red Room next to Laura Palmer, as foppish crook Ben (Dean Stockwell) mimes along to In Dreams and the Man from Another Place (Michael Anderson) bops away in the corner. Lynch sure has a knack for creating freaky baddies.
Blue Velvet is re-released in UK cinemas on 2nd December.