TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)
Laura Palmer's harrowing final days are chronicled one year after the murder of Teresa Banks, a resident of Twin Peaks' neighbouring town.
When David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was originally released it was greeted with muted fanfare. Some fans of Twin Peaks (1990–91), the television series to which it formed a prequel, rejected it because it refused to indulge in its quirky, soap opera pastiche. Critics dismissed its unfocused, extreme vision, with Vincent Canby claiming in The New York Times, “it’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be.” Reportedly booed at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, a reaction strongly denied by Lynch’s co-writer Robert Engels, attendee Quentin Tarantino thought Lynch had “disappeared so far up his own ass” that he didn’t want to see another of his films again. Editor Mary Sweeney summed it up succinctly, saying “people were addicted to Twin Peaks and wanted more of it, and they got a David Lynch film instead. Fire Walk With Me is dark and unrelenting and it made people angry.” Criterion’s high-definition Blu-ray release in the UK is another chance to reappraise the film.
Lynch returned to the world of Twin Peaks to reaffirm his own, bleak take on the mythology of Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen whose unsolved murder was at the centre of events in the show. The reason for this might lie in the collaborative genesis of the TV series and the narrative preferences of Lynch and his Twin Peaks co-creator and writer Mark Frost. Frost first crossed paths with Lynch in 1986 when an agent brought him and Lynch together after United Artists had hired Lynch to adapt Anthony’s Summer’s book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. The book’s then revelations about the Kennedy family scuppered the development of the film, but Frost and Lynch found “a synchronistic way of working together” and were keen to collaborate again.
Their next effort, the “comic phantasmagoria” One Saliva Bubble, a film that they came close to making with Dino De Laurentiis, who had produced Lynch’s two previous films, Dune (1984) and Blue Velvet (1986), was cancelled some six weeks away from shooting when De Laurentiis’ debts caught up with him and his studio. Agent Tony Krantz brought them back together again, intrigued to see how two such different creative minds might tackle long-form serial TV. They first pitched an idea called The Lemurians, about the survivors of a lost continent being hunted down by FBI agents, but Lynch refused NBC’s offer to make it as a TV Movie. Instead, Krantz thought Lynch should reflect his own world, “the flotsam and jetsam of L.A”, and “do a series about that.”
Krantz screened them Peyton Place (1957), a film based on Grace Metalious’ blockbuster novel about the sex lives, class privileges, and inequalities of the residents in a small conservative New England mill town, and suggested they come up with something where “Peyton Place meets your world, David.” Peyton Place itself became a franchise, including another novel, film sequel and, more pertinently to the development of Twin Peaks, a hugely successful television soap opera. Running for five years in the 1960s, it too emphasised the nature of small-town lives and the dark secrets they harboured.
They successfully pitched Northwest Passage to ABC in March 1988, benefiting from Frost’s prior experience negotiating and working in TV. Retitled Twin Peaks, it would offer Lynch an opportunity to “subvert the ground rules of television” in what they both saw as “some kind of serial about the murder of a homecoming queen” that opens with the image of “a dead body washing up on the shore of a lake.” From this basic premise emerged two seasons of a drama that most agree changed the nature of the television audience’s relationship with storytelling and character development. Critics often look back and claim that Twin Peaks both heralded and inspired early TV homages, such as Due South (1994-99) and Northern Exposure (1990-95), and the novelistic, long-form iterations of the medium first exemplified by The Sopranos (1999-2007).
However, the first season’s popular success, underlined by its 14 Emmy nominations in 1991, waned after ABC demanded that Lynch resolve the central mystery of who killed the town’s homecoming queen, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). She’d been pivotal to how the series had explored both the dark and comic aspects of small-town life, but Lynch felt it was a mistake to solve her murder. “I told them that if they revealed the killer it would be the end of it, and it was the end of it,” he said. By the time Lynch returned to direct the opening episode of the second season, in which Laura’s killer is revealed as her father Leland (Ray Wise), a child abuse victim possessed by an evil entity called BOB (Frank Silva), his interest in the series had dwindled. Unhappy with the network’s demands, he felt Twin Peaks “had just ceased to be anything I recognised.” Audiences then dropped after the killer was unveiled and ABC added to this downturn by moving the show in the schedules.
The second season finale, which concluded with the demonic BOB becoming a doppelganger of dogged FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who was investigating Laura’s murder, seemed to leave the series unsatisfactorily open-ended, with many unanswered questions. For Lynch, “it was the way it was… there are other directors, other writers, other things that come in. It may be fine but it’s not what you would do.” He would have been happier if he and Frost had remained the sole drivers of the narrative and characters. Before directing the finale, Lynch altered certain sections of the script, particularly the scenes set in the subconscious domain of the Red Room. The mythology of this portal, leading from the small town concerns of Twin Peaks’ inhabitants to the hidden realms of the Black Lodge and the White Lodge, where the forces of Good and Evil fight over suffering human souls, and the tone of 1989’s original pilot episode are what Lynch regards as the essence of his Twin Peaks.
As Martha Nochimson notes, it was also a culmination of the stresses and strains between the distinct narratives that Lynch and Frost each wanted to apply to the series that was perhaps the key to Lynch’s return to the Laura Palmer story without Frost as his collaborator in 1991 when he agreed to make Fire Walk With Me as part of his new contract with producers CIBY-2000. Nochimson’s evaluation of the working relationship was one that oscillated between “Frost’s knowledge of the classics and the literature of mysticism” and “Lynch’s instincts for the reality attainable when human intelligence moves beyond language and cultural form.” Essentially, Frost sought rationalism to counter Lynch’s penchant for the irrational in the narrative, particularly in Agent Dale Cooper’s consultation, and relationship, with the subconscious realms and its agents.
When Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was announced in 1991, soon after the cancellation of the series, fans expected the film to pick up from the finale and continue the story. Lynch simply didn’t want to do this. As Frost explained, “David and I had a disagreement with what direction a movie should go. I felt very strongly that our audience wanted to see the story go forward. So, I declined to be involved with the movie.” Lynch was fascinated with the Laura Palmer character and, feeling “there was more stuff that could be done”, wanted the film to act as a prequel that explored her last seven days. Found dead in the pilot episode, she was a character we never really got to know other than as a figure that haunted the rest of the narrative. He also wanted to expand upon the cosmology that underpinned the forces of good and evil that were warring for possession of her soul.
Series writer Robert Engels produced a first draft screenplay with Lynch within three weeks and recalled that subsequent drafts were substantial, extending the notion of the film moving through the past, present, and future, where “we wanted to show how Laura got there and what happened after. That was our concept, to do both ends. That was always the idea. We would do stuff before [Laura’s last seven days], and then we would show what happened after.” Engels recalls they wanted to feature BOB and the Black Lodge earlier in the “drafts where somehow we were back in 1954, and it was Eisenhower’s inauguration, and we were going to shoot under a Formica table. There were insects on this table and the Garmonbozia was there.”
Garmonbozia, for the uninitiated, is a substance representing pain and sorrow that, through their possession of human souls, these intra-terrestrial entities feed on. It resembles creamed corn. The Formica table, sans insects, does feature in the film and this disc’s deleted/extended scenes. The notion of returning to the 1950s and earlier, the birth of BOB, and an insect-amphibian hatching out were all featured in Part 8’s cosmological interlude of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), the series that Lynch and Frost created some 25 years after the final episode of the original series. The Return itself picked up strands from the series finale and from events in Fire Walk With Me.
The script then had to be rewritten because both Lara Flynn Boyle (Laura’s close friend Donna) and Sherilyn Fenn (Audrey Horne, whose fate was left unknown in the finale’s bomb explosion) declined to take part in the film, initially due to scheduling conflicts. However, as Fenn said in later interviews, it was also because she was unhappy about how season 2 had developed. Similar concerns about the second season, including a fear of typecasting, also informed Kyle MacLachlan’s non-participation as FBI Agent Dale Cooper. With a script heavily focused on Cooper’s character, Engels and Lynch had to substitute in two new FBI agents, Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland), to investigate the murder of Teresa Banks, a case that Cooper eventually linked to Laura’s killer in the pilot of Twin Peaks. MacLachlan then changed his mind and agreed to make a limited appearance in the film. The final shooting script was shorter and, after a three-month shoot, Lynch also cut out many of the lighter, funnier scenes that featured cast members of the series. Those were later included in his compilation The Missing Scenes on CBS-Paramount’s The Entire Mystery set in 2014 and also on this release.
However, despite its apparent dismissal at the time, Fire Walk With Me has since garnered a greater appreciation and is seen as a key work in Lynch’s canon, marking as it does the end of a period in which, as an independent filmmaker, he had worked, albeit with varying success, within the commercial, mainstream areas of cinema and television, encompassing films like The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune and, on TV, Twin Peaks. The opening titles sequence, with Teresa Banks’ (Pamela Gidley) murder being the climax of the slowly reversing close-up destruction of a TV with an axe implies Twin Peaks is no longer the show you remember, with Lynch saying that by leaving the small screen for the big the story can embrace the intensity that first emerged in Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet, with their less innocent, darker, more surreal tones, and that he made the focus of subsequent films like Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001). The later films, with their greater emphasis on duality, identity, possession, and how extreme rites of passage can provide a sense of transcendence, find their origin here.
It’s particularly gratifying to return to the film since the advent of The Return, as the 2017 series developed upon much of the film’s content and style. This in itself makes the film more resonant in terms of the Twin Peaks mythology Lynch has created, where the marriage of violent, absurdist humour, and surreal cosmology underpins the major themes of deceit, identity, temporality, and the desperate loss of innocence that he is concerned with. Equally, by taking us through Laura Palmer’s extremely traumatic experience, he cast a different complexion on the core themes of the original ABC series. Granted, a viewer unfamiliar with Twin Peaks would not understand all of the references in the narrative but its central strand, the investigation of Teresa Banks’ murder and Laura’s own impending demise, is compelling and this alone, Lindsay Hallam believes, presents the viewer with “a stand-alone horror movie, one which takes us into the living nightmare of a young woman suffering abuse, giving an insight into how her traumas are manifest in the form of otherworldly beings.”
There isn’t enough space in this review to chart all the connections with the original two television seasons and Twin Peaks: The Return. While the opening half-hour of the film is concerned with Chet and Sam’s investigation of 17-year old Banks’ death at Deer Meadow, at the behest of the FBI’s Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (Lynch) and the sour-faced, dancing, blue rose wearing clairvoyant Lil (“my mother’s sister’s girl”, played by Kimberly Ann Cole), it’s the fate of Laura Palmer, and her secret life, that makes for such a visceral viewing experience.
Dale Cooper’s arrival at the Fat Trout Trailer Park to investigate Chet’s disappearance, set within Lynch’s sinister slice of low-life America, indulges many obscure references: the importance of a green owl ring to the wearer’s access to the portal of the Black Lodge and supposed ‘marriage’ to BOB, its evil inhabitant; the pattern of Teresa Bank’s murder and BOB’s telltale calling card, a letter ‘T’ printed on paper tucked under her fingernail; the owner of the Fat Trout Trailer Park, Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton, who reprised the role in Twin Peaks: The Return); the Park’s association with disappearing trailer homes and numbered telephone poles (expanded upon in The Return’s obsession with numbers and electricity); Cooper’s dreams, his security camera duplicate, and his and Cole’s encounter with missing agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie).
Lynch makes no concessions when Jeffries is seemingly beamed in through a veil of TV interference to recount an extraordinary meeting above a convenience store where several of the mythological entities familiar to Twin Peaks fans are shown in flashback: The Man From Another Place (Michael Anderson), BOB, Mrs Tremond (or Chalfont), played by Frances Bay, and her grandson Pierre, the woodsmen (see The Return for the significance of these figures), an ‘electrician’, and ‘the jumping man’. Anderson, with his backward dialogue, is instantly recognisable, and Mrs Tremond and her grandson figures—integral to Laura’s eventual journey into other dimensions—are also familiar from the original series and The Return. Bowie was approached to reprise Jeffries in The Return but declined because he wanted to keep his recent cancer diagnosis private. Some of his scenes were included in the 2017 series and Part 14 was dedicated to his memory. His claim in Fire Walks With Me, that “I’m not going to talk about Judy”, is another mystery explored in The Return.
His disruption of the film offers an interesting counterpoint to the rational investigation attempted by the FBI’s detectives. Jeffries’ vision suggests that their rational approach is redundant and to solve the case they will have to yield to the subconscious realm, one that Cooper acknowledges is beyond ordinary, surface reality, and that the rest of the film explores through the specific female viewpoint of Laura Palmer. It’s Laura’s terrible fate that turns an esoteric puzzle into a trawl through psychological trauma, one brilliantly performed by Sheryl Lee. The film swerves from her seemingly, on the surface, innocent days as a high-school student to her otherness as a coke-sniffing abuse victim entangled in relationships with James Hurley (James Marshall) and drug dealer Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook). As she indicates to James, he must let her go because the real Laura Palmer is “long gone”.
Her relationship with her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly) first reveals something of the inner trauma Laura is experiencing. Their confessional conversations (hinting at Laura’s secret diary) explore love as a combination of surface distractions and deeper psychological damage. This casual chat darkens when Laura reflects on her impending fall from grace, her demise now “faster and faster”, so fast “you’d burst into fire”, and with no one to help because the angels “have all gone away.” This is the film’s trajectory and Laura endures what she must in order to find the missing angel that will redeem her. However, Lynch suggests that the angels are still present, overlooking these events, with the dominance of a high angle shooting style. That Laura might have to burst into flame is highly symbolic, suggesting that it is her death, the ultimate burnout, to walk in fire, that will reunite her with these angelic forces.
The disruption of surface reality manifests itself in the pages torn from her diary, a traumatic event she shares with another original series regular, the recluse Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen). Although Harold reiterates that BOB is not real, for her he is brutally present. The entity that uses her father’s form, “has been having me since I was 12.” Only he, who comes through her window at night, could know about the diary. BOB is grooming her, preparing her for the day when he will be her. There’s an incredible jump cut in this scene, reminiscent of the flash cuts to the demon Pazuzu used by William Friedkin in The Exorcist (1973), where Laura’s face abruptly turns demonic as BOB’s possession rises to the surface.
After she is given a picture, of an empty room with a half-open door, by Mrs Tremond, Laura returns home to find that “under the fan”, the ceiling fan oscillating at the top of the stairs in the Palmer house and one of Twin Peaks’ truly sinister visual motifs, the demon has returned to her bedroom. However, BOB is only the outward mask worn by a more familiar wearer. Having fled the house, she looks back as her father Leland (Ray Wise is deeply affecting as a man torn apart by forces beyond his control) leaves the house. Again, Sheryl Lee effectively conveys an abuse victim’s own denial that the perpetrator is actually someone close to them, in their own family. A later scene, where she returns home and has to converse with her father as though nothing abnormal has occurred, gradually reveals, through a doorway, Leland sitting at the dining table. Half-open doorways are a repeated motif in the film, offered as openings to escape through or retreat from, as boundaries between suburban reality and the subconscious realm.
She can’t retreat from a father who’s obsessed with and berates her for the dirt under her fingernails and the “lovers” she has in high school. It’s an excruciatingly uncomfortable scene, a domestic horror writ large because there’s also a sense that Laura’s mother Sarah (the superb Grace Zabriskie) already intuits what Leland’s treatment of Laura signifies. After this upsetting encounter with him, her father later seems to regain control and, contrite, seeks to comfort her. In her bedroom, she tearfully turns to a painting, of an angel serving food to three children, and asks of if her father really is her abuser. She finds her suburban reality wanting and seeks resolution in the mysterious secrets of the subconscious.
The dread increases as Laura goes to sleep, having hung Mrs. Tremond’s picture on her wall. She dreams of entering the door in the picture and travelling to the Red Room. She receives a message from Dale Cooper in the future, who implores her not to take the owl ring, fearing it will consummate her ‘marriage’ with BOB. Upon waking, she finds a badly injured Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) lying in bed beside her. Annie’s also from her future, from events after Laura’s death when Annie was taken into the Lodge and implores her to write down in her diary that “the good Dale is in the lodge and he can’t leave.” Laura sees a vision of herself in the painting looking back at her, one perhaps satisfied that the Laura she is watching has now accessed the Red Room and can perceive what is happening beyond her corrupted reality. Lynch maintained that the Red Room was different for every person who entered it, symbolising each person’s particular journey there, as separate, distinct versions of their subconscious lives.
Neither Laura nor the audience fully understands the implications of this supposed warning. Nochimson suggests that the offering of the ring is not a warning but a means to an end, where the ring allows Laura to access her subconscious, giving her some ability to see below the surface of Twin Peaks, so that her death, as visceral and upsetting as it is in the film, eventually becomes a redemptive, transformative force, “that yields eternity as a refreshed present, not the hereafter.” Laura is killed because she finally wears the ring and refuses to host BOB, BOB and his partner entity, the one-armed MIKE (Al Strobel), face a reckoning about Leland that then has ramifications for the original series, and Dale’s predicament doesn’t play out until The Return, where an evil version of Dale, that has been hosting BOB since the finale of the series, is challenged by the good Dale.
Donna’s loyal friendship is tested to the extreme as Laura lurches between death-wish and visionary. In one of the film’s most arresting and disturbing scenes, at the Pink Room nightclub she and Donna are taken to, she’s suddenly aware that Donna is about to be violently raped by one of the men who brought them there and, briefly illuminated by white light, manages to protect her. Her powers also interpret her father’s involvement in the murder of Teresa Banks as MIKE attempts to warn her about him when they’re caught in a traffic incident. The visual motif of the flashing light reoccurs when she has more visions about the ring and, finally, sees BOB is her father when he returns through her window to abuse her. Later, shafts of light bathe her during her murder. As the film spirals through her various humiliations and depravities toward her murder, she is drawn towards ‘seeing the light’, for want of a better description, beyond the boundaries of what seems normal and real in the conscious world. In the end, in her Red Room, the light reveals the angel she has been longing to meet, the freedom she has been craving.
The film finds a redemptive conclusion that is very affecting despite the harrowing subject matter. After the demise of the series, Lynch has since reflected there was a decline in interest in Twin Peaks and, because “there wasn’t any real humour in the film… it was a tough ride. Incest is not always like… they don’t rush out and get tickets for incest and murder.” Yet, it’s an extraordinary film. Simultaneously baffling, surreal, dark, unrelenting, intensely upsetting, and poetically transcendent.
FRANCE • USA | 1992 | 134 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Primarily the same transfer used on CBS-Paramount’s extensive 2014 Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery box-set, Criterion’s new release has a lush, vivid picture with good detail, texture, and colours. The transfer is treated to a 7.1 DTS-HD mix of the sound design (an integral, immersive element of the viewing experience), including a stunning use of Angelo Badalamenti’s music, twisted, screeching distortions, and the overwhelming heavy bass music that drowns out the nightmarish Pink Room night club that suggests we’ve descended into hell.
director: David Lynch.
writers: David Lynch & Robert Engels (based on the TV series ‘Twin Peaks’ created by Mark Frost & David Lynch).
starring: Sheryl Lee, Moira Kelly, David Bowie, Chris Isaak, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Wise & Kyle MacLachlan.
I am indebted to the following sources: Martha Nochimson, The Passion of David Lynch (University of Texas Press, 2003) • Chris Rodley, Lynch on Lynch, (Faber, revised edition 2005) • David Hughes, The Complete Lynch, (Virgin, 2003) • David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Room to Dream (Canongate, 2018) • Lindsay Hallam, Devil’s Advocates: Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me, (Auteur, 2018) • Marisa C Hayes and Franck Boulegue (eds), Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks, (Intellect, 2013).
Editor’s note: the original version of this review incorrectly blamed David Lynch’s filming commitment with Wild at Heart (1990) for his reluctance to return to Twin Peaks for season 2, when in fact he wrote and directed the season 2 premiere before Wild at Heart premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in summer 1990. Thanks to commenter Keith Gow for highlighting this widespread misunderstanding.