The Art-House Horror of ‘Lost Highway’

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“Funny how secrets travel,” David Bowie croons as the music thumps. The camera zooms down a dark desolate highway, illuminated only by the twin beams of a speeding car’s headlights. This is the beginning of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and it sets the mood for the chaos to come.

Lynch rose to auteur status with unflinchingly distinct films crafted with a fetishistic fever. They were challenging and downright weird films that made unsuspecting audiences uncomfortable while simultaneously earning the director acclaim. They were the types of films that seemed to exist within their own self-contained universes where the past and present would collide, often violently. As much as Lynch became a cult icon in America, his fame here couldn’t hold a candle to the praise he gathered overseas–especially in France. The French loved Lynch, and in the late 1990s, thanks to French financing, Lynch was able to direct Lost Highway, co-written with Barry Gifford.

Lost Highway feels slightly overlooked in the oeuvre. When people talk Lynch, it always seems to be about Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, or his cult TV show Twin Peaks. Occasionally those well-versed in schadenfreude will gleefully recall his disastrous adaptation of Dune. And then there’s his dreamy, wonderful Mulholland Drive, which managed to creep its way into mainstream consciousness. Even Roger Ebert, who had a long history of panning Lynch’s work, gave Mulholland Drive four stars. But what of Lost Highway? It gets lost somewhere in the mix.

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It’s easy to shrug off Lost Highway as a test-run for Mulholland Drive–they both explore similar, nightmarish themes and storylines involving dual identities, complete with a blonde/brunette-haired female duality that the director often likes to employ. But there’s something infinitely more disturbing and creepy about Lost Highway.

Lynch later said he realized that when he was writing the film he was subconsciously channeling the O.J. Simpson murders and trial, and that’s one way to look at things: shocking murders involving “famous” people and the mysteries behind them.

Bill Pullman, here at his Bill Pullmaniest, plays a noise-jazz musician named Fred Madison. He’s married to Renee, played by recent Oscar winner Patricia Arquette, who seems like she’s on tranquilizers during the whole film. This isn’t a knock on her performance; she’s doing exactly what her role calls for.

The couple resides in a very spooky, very modern house (which is actually David Lynch’s own house) with few windows and really deep, dark corners. One morning, they find a videotape on their doorstep. They watch it, and it reveals that someone has been filming their house. They think nothing of this at first—until more tapes show up, showing that whoever is filming their house is also going inside their house, even filming them while they sleep.

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Though this is frightening enough already, Lynch piles on the horror as Fred and Renee go to a party where Fred encounters the character known as The Mystery Man, played by Robert Blake. Blake’s appearance in the film lends it some post-release notoriety: years later in real-life he had his own very public O.J. Simpson-like murder trial, and Lost Highway is the last film he appeared in. Blake is delightfully disturbing in the role, aided by his pale-white makeup. After a fantastic scene in which the Mystery Man hands Fred a giant old cell phone and tells him to call his own house, where the Mystery Man answers the phone and then the Mystery Man at the party and the one at the house laugh in stereo, things really start going downhill for Fred. Renee turns up dead and Fred is convicted of her murder.

Fred has no memory of the murder, but all that is moot anyway because one night he morphs into rebel teen Pete Dayton, played by Balthazar Getty. The audience and the characters in the film are now both in the same boat: neither has any idea what the hell is going on. We watch as Pete, formerly Fred, gets out of jail and starts having an affair with a woman named Alice, also played by Arquette. The Mystery Man pops up some more, and Robert Loggia steals nearly the whole film as whacked-out mobster Mr. Eddy—and, in keeping with the dual personality angle—might also be someone named Dick Laurent—who we are told at the beginning of the movie is dead. Loggia is another type of character that Lynch loves to create: the hilariously unhinged madman. Loggia had desired the similar role of Frank Booth in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, but Dennis Hopper claimed the character in one of film’s most memorable performances. Loggia gets to sink his teeth into a similar character here, though, especially during a scene in which he violently beats someone who had been tailgating his car.

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It all culminates with blood and betrayal somewhere in the desert, before frantically heading back out onto that black stretch of highway we were traveling down in the beginning–the film looping itself, telling us we’re trapped here, forever to go in this same direction.

Simply put, Lost Highway doesn’t really make a lick of sense. Even the people involved with it didn’t know what to make of it. When the late David Foster Wallace visited the set in 1996 for a piece for Premiere magazine, he asked several members of the production to describe what Lost Highway was really about and got a wild variety of answers, including: “This is a movie that explores psychosis subjectively.” And: “This film represents schizophrenia performatively, not just representationally. This is done in terms of loosening of identity, ontology, and continuity in time.” And: “I’m sure not going to go see it, I know that.” [Please link to a source for these DFW quotes.]

As confusing as Mulholland Drive may be, you’ll arrive at a very clear interpretation of that film once you mull it over and maybe rewatch it a few more times. Lost Highway isn’t like that. It’s willfully obtuse, and proud of it. When Siskel and Ebert gave it “two thumbs down,” Lynch had new posters made highlighting this fact with the the quote: “Two more reasons to see Lost Highway!” The fact that things in the film are so strange, and so out-of-left field, aids in making it all the more unsettling. While it may not often be classified in the horror genre, this film is art-house horror at its best. As one of the prison guards perfectly sums it up after discovering that Fred has transformed into Pete: “Captain, this is some spooky shit we got here.” Almost every scene drips with weird, sleazy menace. The characters drift around with a soulless apathy, seeming shell-shocked from the situation in they find themselves. How unsettling is Lost Highway? Let’s put it this way: Gary Busey is in the film, and he plays one of the only normal characters.

Chris Evangelista






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