David Lynch is not often thought of as a director of horror films, yet for the past 30-plus years he has given us some of the most genuinely terrifying imagery in American cinema. Taking into account all the horror movies that have come and gone in the past decade, and all the momentarily effective genres that have had their moment to cast their long shadow (J-horror, torture porn, shaky caught-on-camcorder mockumentaries), was there a scene more pit-of-your-stomach-and-soul dreadful than the one set at Winkie’s diner in Mulholland Drive? It’s not merely the scene-punctuating emergence of the monstrous man lurking out back—it’s the entire buildup, which functions on a palpable dream logic better than any I’ve ever seen attempted in a film. The two mysterious men at the booth; the haunted-looking one letting the straight-arrow know he asked him here just to talk about his nightmares; the fear that the man of his dreams is out there and the vague declaration that “he’s the one who’s doing it” (doing what?! ); the camera that seems to haphazardly float around them as they talk; the moment when the straight-arrow’s specific position when paying his bill at the counter brings to fruition the man’s dream world; and finally the inexorable walk out back: we know he will be there. He pops out, ghost-like, the sound sucks out of the scene save a muffled pulse, and we feel we’re having a heart attack along with the terrified character.
There’s something heartening to all us genre fans that the greatest film of the last decade contains a sequence so truly disturbing, and one that relies on (and perfects) the bizarre unreality and uncanniness that makes horror what it is. This scene alone (and the film’s climactic night terrors) might be enough to consider Mulholland Drive a horror movie, but before this Lynch made Lost Highway, which is clearly the closest the director ever got to making a bona fide horror film beginning to end. Though in its bifurcated structure and narrative of radically shifting identities, the film now feels like a warm-up to Mulholland, Lost Highway remains a remarkable film—and a remarkably terrifying one. Its first hour is perhaps Lynch’s most tonally sustained work, a cryptic, profoundly unsettling creepshow that functions as its own contained narrative of jealousy and surveillance and features some of the richest pitch blacks ever realized onscreen (the great cinematographer Peter Deming proves himself a true master of the dark arts here).
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