Sunday, October 19, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 17 - Lost Highway

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

While Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was considerably darker and more abrasive than the series, it still contains enough deadpan comedy that, along with the way it ends Laura Palmer's sad story with a disarming moment of grace, makes the question of whether it's a horror movie or not a debatable one. With David Lynch's next feature, Lost Highway, there's very little debate - it's basically a two-hour nightmare, one that ends without any moment of resolution for its protagonist(s?) or the audience, and what little humor it contains is very grim. While the story relies on noir staples like the seductive girlfriend of a violently jealous gangster, the villain here is most likely the protagonist's own disturbed mind. Lynch has said that he realized, after making the movie, that he was inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial, which actually makes perfect sense; it's a movie about a guy who creates an alternate life for himself to forget a terrible thing he's done, only to find that his own mind - in the form of the creepiest character Lynch has ever created - won't let him escape.

The movie begins with couple Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette), who are living in a sort of monosyllabic horror show of a failing marriage even before they start receiving videos showing the outside and, eventually, the inside of their house (I was annoyed when Michael Haneke either unintentionally repeated or blatantly stole this device for Caché and everyone was apparently fine with it). As with most mysteries in Lynch's movies, the tapes aren't a puzzle to be put together as much as a harbinger of darker things to come, which manifest themselves in the form of a guy in Kabuki makeup (played, in a queasy coincidence, by future possible wife murderer Robert Blake) who approaches Fred at a party and informs him that they've met before. The guy also tells Fred that he's at Fred and Renee's home right now; Fred calls home, at the mysterious man's insistence, and the man does indeed pick up at the other end. The scene is a perfect example of Lynch's amazing gift to take a scene that, on the page, could play like a lesser Twilight Zone episode and, by staging it just right, eliciting the right performances from his (presumably very trusting) actors and, especially, knowing just when to cut to tighter close-ups on his actors, creates a scene that works as a horror story in miniature.

The story soon jumps ahead to Fred in prison, accused of killing his wife, which he doesn't remember. One morning, after suffering a headache that looks slightly less painful than the one Michael Ironside gives Louis Del Grande in Scanners, Fred wakes up as a different person. Pete (Balthazar Getty), an auto mechanic in his early 20s, doesn't remember how he got there, but the movie switches tracks with him. Pete soon begins an affair with Alice (also Arquette), the mistress of a gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). Just as the movie seems to be veering into Double Indemnity territory, bits of Fred's life start to intrude on Pete's story in strange ways, until the whole thing folds back on itself. The movie has a great deal in common, thematically and structurally, with Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, but while those movies end on a note of liberation for their trapped heroines, there's no exit for Fred at the end; it's easy to imagine the end credits simply looping back to the movie's beginning.

It's not quite as strong as the two later films, and once you start to understand what's happening to Fred/Pete, some of the details might start to seem unnecessarily obscure. But it contains some of Lynch's best work - the scene where Mr. Eddy assaults a tailgater is the most memorable in Loggia's filmography (other than his Minute Maid ad), and there's a great sex scene between Pete and Alice, scored to This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren,"* that takes a hairpin turn from beautiful to chilling (Arquette's performance is very underrated). And whenever the movie seems ready to fly off the rails, Blake returns to bring everything into frightening focus. Blake may be playing the devil (this was Blake's interpretation), or a projection of Fred's conscience (co-writer Barry Gifford thought so); personally, I think he's like the subconscious characters in Inception (albeit in a less literal way), determined to eject Fred from his own dream. Whatever the case may be, Blake is completely terrifying; late in the movie, there's a POV shot of Fred, from the driver's side of his car, pulling away as Blake approaches with a camera, grasping at Fred as he drives away, that is as suspenseful as any protracted chase in a slasher movie.

Given the theme of this month's poll, it's also worth noting that Lost Highway is immediately identifiable as a late-'90s movie. Lynch's films often feel like they're taking place in the present and the recent past at the same time, and Lost Highway sort of tries that with the noir elements. In this case, though, the wall-to-wall industrial soundtrack, as well as the industrial influence on the production design and costumes, make it much more recognizably of its time. This hurts the movie a little bit - it takes me out of the dreamlike atmosphere Lynch is working so hard to build when Marilyn Manson and Henry Rollins show up in cameo roles. While I don't doubt that Lynch is a fan of Manson, Nine Inch Nails and the other artists on the soundtrack, it sometimes feels like he's straining for relevance in a way that none of his other work does. It's a minor nitpick, though, as the movie is still fascinating and often very unsettling; let's just say that, while a David Lynch movie isn't improved by putting a Rammstein song on the soundtrack, being on the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie makes Rammstein a little more interesting.

Sidenote: If you haven't read this David Foster Wallace piece about Lynch, focusing on a visit to the set of Lost Highway, I can't recommend it highly enough.

*Lynch wanted to use this song as the soundtrack for Jeffrey and Sandy's dance scene in Blue Velvet; when he found out he couldn't, he wrote the lyrics to "Mysteries of Love" during a lunch break.

U.S. Release Date: February 19, 1997 (Also opening that day: The Empire Strikes Back (Special Edition), Rosewood, Blood and Wine)

What critics said at the time:

"In Eraserhead, there was a rapturous quality in even the most grisly images. Amid the terrible loneliness of human (and industrial) life were flecks of opalescent beauty, and of connection. In Lost Highway, the plugs have been pulled, and what's left is a misanthropic cackle that echoes in the void. It's distressing to think that Blue Velvet was the climax of Lynch's hopeful phase, that his view of humanity has been downhill from there. It's not that the vision here is so bleak, but that it's so reductive, and that it leads nowhere. Lost Highway is Eraserhead without the wonder, Eraserhead conceived by an angry man recycling stale genre movies and making them staler and more primitive yet." - David Edelstein, Slate
"Lynch has landed us in storytelling territory so weird and new that a more precise plot synopsis would probably be incoherent, like the handbook for the afterlife that the dead are required to read in Beetlejuice. Yet from beginning to end, Lynch keeps us anchored in a very plausible, slightly comical, hypnotically humdrum world where people drive cars, go to work, and haunt their own apartments. For all that these characters relentlessly transform, inside and out, their world is solid and constant--and from the get-go, this is a reassuring indicator that Lynch knows exactly what he is doing. We are never anywhere except where he and co-writer Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart) want us to be." - F.X. Feeney, Mr. Showbiz

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