'Blue Velvet' was re-released in 2016 to coincide with its 30th anniversary. Viewed today, David Lynch's astonishing film is every bit as creepily weird and deeply disturbing as it was in 1986. Restored by Glasgow-based Park Circus Films, its recent screening coincides with the return of another Lynch classic, the small-town American cult drama television serial, 'Twin Peaks'.
First screened on US television in 1990, a new season of 'Twin Peaks' returns this year. The original series was shown in the UK on BBC2. The new one, screening on Sky Atlantic, begins where the first left off and stars some of the original actors, including Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Cooper, the FBI agent investigating the terrible murder of Laura Palmer, and Sheryl Lee returns as Laura Palmer's doppelganger. New additions to the 18-episode new drama include Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, Michael Cera and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
'Twin Peaks', the show that is claimed to have changed television drama forever, shares much with its older cinematic sibling 'Blue Velvet' both thematically and tonally, including haunting soundtracks by Julie Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti. Who can forget the synthesised bass guitar's plangent notes that launched each eagerly awaited weekly instalment of 'Twin Peaks'? Nobody cared that after 30 episodes they were scarcely any the wiser about what was going on than they were at the start. The drama's eerily mellifluous soundtrack, matched by its daringly dense narrative and hallucinatory feel and look, were sufficient gratification.
'Blue Velvet' is a kind of fable about a teenager who grows up in small-town America – as did the young Lynch – hides in a mysterious woman's wardrobe, spies on her and then gets drawn into a nightmare world of brutality and control. Starring a very young Kyle MacLachlan alongside a langorously spaced-out Isabella Rossellini, in her first major role in English, they share screen time with Dennis Hopper as a repellent amyl-nitrate-snorting psychopath.
The film seems to have polarised critics from the outset. The renowned American film critic Roger Ebert, normally a fan of offbeat films, hated it, whilst Pauline Kael praised its 'charged erotic atmosphere and aural-visual humor and poetry'. In Kael's view, Lynch's use of irrational material works well because it encourages us to read the film's images at a partly unconscious level.
The film's opening sequence exemplifies the surreal, near-hallucinatory quality that Lynch sustains throughout: azure sky; red tulips standing to attention along a white picket fence; a smiling fireman waving to passing citizens from the fender of a fire engine; school-children being guided across the road; a woman sipping tea in front of the TV as her husband waters a manicured lawn. Everything is in hyper-real saturated colours and in slow motion, accompanied by Bobby Vinton's lugubrious rendition of the title song. Lynch used slow motion at the beginning because, Mark Cousins informs us, he felt that stories should be 'floated' into.
But oh dear, the hose has caught; the man is having a seizure; we are plunged below the ground where we see voraciously munching bugs in extreme close-up. Now here comes Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), back in his hometown of Lumberton from college after his father's near-fatal stroke. Walking home from hospital, he finds a severed human ear complete with crawling ants in the undergrowth. The stage is set for the film's depiction of outwardly idyllic Lumberton, USA, and its dark underworld of sexual violence, corruption, voyeurism, brutality and kidnapping.
Jeffrey takes the ear to detective John Williams and bonds with his wholesome daughter Sandy (Laura Dern in her first screen role). Sandy tells him of a nightclub singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini), who seems connected to the ear case. We (and Jeffrey) soon see and hear Dorothy's sexily sultry rendition of 'Blue Velvet', this time sung slightly off-key in a nightclub. Jeffrey becomes fascinated by the mysterious woman and breaks into her apartment where he hides in a wardrobe and spies on her. He witnesses her abuse by gangster Frank (Dennis Hopper).
This scene is truly shocking and almost impossible to watch. Frank, who gains heightened sexual gratification by sucking on an inhaler and moaning 'mummy mummy', commands Dorothy to open her legs, beats her and uses her blue velvet dressing gown when he rapes her. We learn that he has kidnapped her young son and that the boy is being held by a bunch of misfits including the rouged and lisping 'Ben the Sandman', played by Dean Stockwell in a cameo role that is itself worth the price of the cinema ticket.
Dorothy cannot risk upsetting Frank, whom she addresses as 'sir'. She has given herself over to his abuse in order to save her child. In one ghastly scene we see what he is capable of: Jeffrey's 'yellow man', a policeman left dead but standing upright in Dorothy's apartment with his brains poking out of his head, is a truly nightmarish creation. When Dorothy catches Jeffrey in the act of spying on her from the wardrobe, they begin their own twisted sexual liaison. Jeffrey is a clean-cut young man whose voyeuristic thoughts and newly unleashed darker desires scare him. He ends up moving between Dorothy, who will soon tell Jeffrey to hit her, and Sandy, the wholesome girl he supposedly loves.
Viewed 30 years on, 'Blue Velvet' seems even more grotesquely bizarre than first time around. A mixture of genres, moods and time frames, it combines, in the words of Mark Cousins, the innocent wonder of a children's Disney film with the snarling evil of 'The Exorcist'. Even the era in which it is set remains unclear. It feels like 1950s small town America but Jeffrey's jeans and shirt are pure 1980s and much of the film has the look and atmosphere of a 1940s noir film. Perhaps the best description of this shifting sense of time is Pauline Kael's: 'The setting is an archetypal small, sleepy city in an indefinite mythic present that feels like the past.' Three decades on, the film has lost none of its power to upset and fascinate in equal measure and, in the process, to dispel a few still prevalent American myths.