This was one of those films I was a bit squeamish about seeing. I’d seen Twin Peaks and I knew David Lynch could get weird, but did I really want to watch Dennis Hopper tormenting Isabella Rossellini while huffing possible animal nitrite?
Well, ultimately, I had to see this film, because I love David Lynch. Especially when he’s weird.
Kyle McLaughlin plays Jeffrey the Nice Guy who returns to his small hometown and, whilst taking a stroll, happens upon a severed ear. So, like any nice small-town guy, Jeffrey delivers the ear to the police. A Detective John Williams (played by George Dickinson) takes the ear, and Jeffrey meets Williams’ daughter, Sandy the Nice Girl (played by Laura Durn).
And Sandy, for all her niceness, tells Jeffrey about the ear case and how the mysterious Dorothy Vallens (a.k.a., Isabella Rossellini) may play a part. At that point, Jeffrey becomes very curious and goes into undercover mode. Which, in this case, involves pretending to be an exterminator so he snoop around Vallens’ apartment and steal her extra key to the place.
Well … after that it’s all sneaky-sneaky, with Jeffrey breaking in, hiding in the closet, and (eventually) seeing more than he wanted to. Especially when Frank Booth (played with psychotic glee by Dennis Hopper) starts huffing the old animal nitrite and repeating words like “mommy”, “daddy”, and “baby want to fuck”. Not to mention the words, “Do it for van Gogh”. A reference to the ear?
Without trotting out all the details, just trust me when I say it gets no easier for Jeffrey from here on.
The movie has been compared to Psycho, in its stark depiction of twisted evil and the theme of curiosity leading to the dark, voyeuristic underbelly beneath the surface of a small town. For that matter, I find it reminiscent of another Hitchcock classic, Shadow of a Doubt. Except far, far creepier.
It also combines psychological suspense, horror, and film noir, particularly in its use of dark cinematography, along with the standard noir tropes of femme fatale (Rossellini), add-ass villain (Hopper), and morally ambiguous protagonist (Jeffrey the Nice Guy, who enjoys the occasional peep show).
But what does this film say about us as the viewers? Is cinema ultimately voyeurism? Is there a dark underbelly in each of us that is drawn to stories such as these, but only at the safe distance?
If you’re easily frightened, I wouldn’t watch this film alone at night. I’m not usually suggestible, but this movie got under my skin to the point where part way through I started glancing over my shoulder to the steps going down to the lower level of our house, thinking, “Maybe I should turn the lights on down there.”
Finally, Isabella gets to sing “Blue Velvet” (of course). And Dean Stockwell (as a mincing fellow named Ben) gets to lip-synch to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”. Emphasizing the dreamlike quality of the picture. How very David Lynch!
The American Film Institute chose this movie is one of the greatest mystery films ever made. And I couldn’t agree more. Two thumbs up!