Saturday, October 08, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #24 - Mystery Man

While the films of David Lynch mostly defy genre classification, they're often as unnerving as any horror film. And Lynch's dark imagination has given us many memorable monsters - Frank Booth, Henry Spencer's baby, the monster behind Winky's - that seem as if they emerged straight from his and our collective unconscious. The scariest is the Robert Blake as the "mystery man" (as he is credited) who approaches Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) at a party in Lost Highway and informs him they've met before. Blake serves as the creepy center of one of Lynch's most elusive films, present in both storylines/universes and serving as - what? A conscience? A manifestation of Fred/auto mechanic Pete Dayton's guilt? The devil? I can't definitively put a word to what the mystery man is, which - as is often the case with Lynch's films and characters - makes him even more disturbing. We may not be able to diagram an explanation for everything that happens in Lost Highway with any certainty, but the feeling that the film is proceeding with a self-contained logic controlled by forces beyond our understanding - and the mystery man is certainly one of these - is what makes it such a disconcerting experience.

Beyond that, the mystery man is creepy because of his Kabuki makeup and lack of eyebrows, and because of Robert Blake's gravelly laugh, and because he might be at your house right now (call him). And while there's no doubt that the real-life murder of Blake's wife makes the character even more disturbing in retrospect, he's still creepy as hell even if one isn't aware of the real-life parallel between Blake and Fred Madison. There's a moment when the mystery man stalks through Lynchian darkness as he approaches Fred, camera in hand. With his other, he reaches towards Fred, laughing. Even though I know he won't touch Fred, it never fails to make me flinch.


Paul C. said...

Great scene, great performance. I also love the scene where Mr. Eddie calls Pete out of the blue ("it's good to hear you're doin' fine"), then hands the phone off to the mystery man.

I remember back when this movie first came out and most critics seemed to be let down by it. So I'm glad to see that its rep has gotten better over the years.

Andrew Bemis said...

Definitely. This and Fire Walk With Me seem to be the ones that have taken the longest for critics/audiences to catch up to, which is fair - they're definitely Lynch's most challenging movies (at least until Inland Empire). The Manson/NIN industrial vibe has gotten slightly silly with age, but otherwise this one holds up really well; it's a great rancid noir.