Monday, October 17, 2016

A Sort of Evil Out There: The Horror of ‘Twin Peaks’

Beware of spoilers.

No one knows what to expect when Twin Peaks picks up next year after its last episode aired 25 years ago. We know that many of the old-cast members will be returning, and some key ones—such as Michael Ontkean, Michael Anderson, and Lara Flynn Boyle—won’t. We can assume that the black coffee will flow, the red curtains will billow, and the traffic lights will sway, because those are all key atmospheric components in a fictional world richer in atmosphere than most others. A good deal of that atmosphere derives from “a sort of evil out there… something very, very strange in these old woods,” as Ontkean’s Sheriff Truman once told us (and obviously won’t again). 

David Lynch and Mark Frost poured so many generic flavors into their world. Twin Peaks adopted the format and melodrama of soap operas, the physical comedy and zany misunderstandings of sitcoms, the investigative procedures of cop shows, and even a bit of sci-fi conspiracy theories and abductions. The series’ horror elements were not necessarily more abundant than those of the sitcom or cop show genres, yet few would classify Twin Peaks as a sitcom or cop show while many have put it in the horror bag. Horror channel Chiller TV has run Twin Peaks marathons, horror mag Fangoria has featured the series on its cover under the heading “David Lynch’s Horror Show Remembered,” bloggers have often debated its scariest scenes, Rolling Stone named it The Best Horror TV Show of All Time last year, and it spawned David Lynch’s only feature film that fits comfortably on the horror shelf. 
Perhaps Twin Peaks has endured as a piece of horror because horror has a tendency to overwhelm. Once elements of horror are introduced, other elements tend to get sucked into its vacuum. This is not true of, say, comedy. It is not unusual for a drama, western, sci-fi film, or horror film to have funny moments. Rosemary’s Baby, for example, has many, yet it is not classified as comedy. Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is also very funny, and its humorous moments (Betty’s tour with Coco through the courtyard, the hit man’s comedy of errors, the muddle-headed director for whom Betty auditions, almost all of director Adam Kesher’s scenes) are more plentiful than its scary scenes (the man behind Winkie’s, the discovery of the corpse in the bungalow, and the appearance of the tiny old people), yet it is much more remembered for being scary than funny. We expect humor in entertainment. It always has a place. Horror does not. It belongs in films and television shows explicitly pushed as horror.

Twin Peaks was never pushed as horror. ABC never advertised it as horror. Frost never described it that way. The only one of Lynch’s works the director has ever described as horror is Lost Highway. With all of its winking allusions, Twin Peaks very rarely paid homage to fright films. The most explicit examples of horror homage tangled around Leo Johnson and his shocking emergence from catatonia. Shelly Johnson approaches the wheelchair in which Leo had been confined for most of season two. She spins it around like Vera Miles discovering mother in the fruit cellar in Psycho. The chair is empty. Suddenly, she finds Leo standing, grinning, a party hat and a cake-smeared face transforming him into John Wayne Gacy. She screams.

The horror homage spills into the next episode, as Uli Edel directs the continuation of Leo’s awakening as pure slasher homage. The lights go out. Leo grunts and throws Shelly around like a rag doll. She cowers in a corner when she should be running or defending herself simply because this is what women always do in poorly scripted slasher movies. Bobby Briggs runs to her rescue but can’t figure out how to get through the door simply because this is also the kind of inane thing that would happen in a slasher movie. Shelly finally stabs Leo with a kitchen knife like the classic Final Girl she is. Leo howls and runs into the night. In mimicry of the cheap film stock used in z-grade slashers, the scene even displays a much heavier grain than is usual for the normally pristine Twin Peaks. Bobby underlines what we’ve just seen in the following episode by referring to Johnson as “Leostein.”

Twin Peaks was scarier when it wasn’t winking so hard at the audience, though its use of horror could be just as explicit. Unquestionably the series’ most frightening character, Killer BOB, is basically a horror chimera. He is a serial killer, stalking through the real world, murdering Teresa Banks, Laura Palmer, and Cousin Maddy. He is also a supernatural demon who needs to possess a living man to do his horror business. He exists in dreams like Freddy Kruger. He claims souls like the Devil. He casts a repellently seductive spell over his victims like Dracula. He only appears in one third of the episodes, usually just for a minute or two apiece, but BOB almost singlehandedly casts a cloud of horror over the entire series.

Almost. Twin Peaks also conjured horrific moments from Agent Cooper’s discovery of Windom’s Earle’s murder victim who looks almost exactly like Coop (the corpse is played by Kyle MacLachlan’s brother Craig), the grotesque discovery of another of Earle’s victims inside a giant chess piece, and Earle’s shocking appearance when hovering over Leo Johnson (who has been demoted from Frankenstein’s Monster to Earle’s hunchback assistant by this penultimate episode) with his face painted corpse white and his teeth blacked out. Director Tim Hunter said this was an homage to non-horror director Ozu-Mizoguchi, but the effect is still uncompromisingly scary. 
Incidentally, I couldn’t even find a single image of an Ozu character with black teeth on the Internet, but here’s that one of Earle.
Twin Peaks also goes out on a note of pure horror as the surreal nightmares integral to the series since Episode 2 manifest in the real world when Agent Cooper enters the demonic limbo known as the Black Lodge to rescue his girlfriend Annie from Earle. There he meets the white-eyed apparitions of dead characters, finally confronts BOB in the flesh, and is ultimately hunted, captured, and possessed by his own evil dopplegänger. The chase between Cooper and his dopplegänger from red room to red room has often been compared to a similar scene in horror maestro Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill! though I’ve yet to find any evidence that the episode’s writer/director Lynch had ever even seen Bava’s film.

By the time the final episode of Twin Peaks reaches its denouement, all soap opera, situational comedy, cop procedural, and science fiction has been purged from its system. All that remains is the undiluted horror of the series’ purest hero awakening from his terrifying experiences in the Black Lodge to gaze at his reflection in a bathroom mirror and find the face of the series’ purest villain grinning back at him. It is the stuff of nightmares… quite literally. I myself have had at least one bad dream in which I look into a mirror and see BOB staring back at me.

When Lynch next continued the story, he did so with a reasonable share of comedy and police procedures, a modicum of soap opera drama, a total lack of science fiction, and a profusion of horror. Earlier films such as Eraserhead and The Elephant Man had often been classified as horror despite the former being more of an avant garde work and the latter being a historical drama. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was Lynch’s first and most complete work of horror, BOB making his presence felt in the prequel/sequel more than he ever had in the series. Even when actor Frank Silva is not on screen in his dirty denim jacket, BOB is always lurking just outside the frame. He is there when Cooper finds the words “Let’s Rock” scrawled in blood on the windshield of a junked car. He is there when Agents Chet Desmond and Phillip Jeffries disappear. He is there whenever Laura descends into self-destructive behavior. He is most certainly there when her face turns grey, her teeth turn yellow, her lips turn black, and she hisses the film’s title phrase at Harold Smith in one of the film’s scariest scenes. With its greater emphasis on BOB, more explicit violence, and consistent scenes of pure and completely effective horror, Fire Walk with Me cemented Twin Peaks’ place in the genre for good. So, while I wouldn’t dare to speculate about what will happen on Twin Peaks when it returns next year, I can say with some confidence that you should prepare yourself for nightmares.

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