David Lynch's career up until Blue Velvet seemed to be a steady progression from surreal outsider to failed mainstream director. Eraserhead remains one of the strangest horror films ever made, something which could only have come from the slightly insane mind of an auteur. The Elephant Man is a strong but peculiar hybrid of this imagery with the normal conventions of a biopic; the result is interesting but not entirely satisfying. And then we have Dune, which is more than enjoyable as a guilty pleasure sci-fi, but even after 25 years its look and its narrative remain a mess. In 1984 it seemed that David Lynch's career as a director was over. But that was before Blue Velvet came along.
It's hard to believe that Dune and Blue Velvet were made by the same director, let alone released within two years of each other. Where Dune is rambling, muddled and lacks a solid creative drive, Blue Velvet is intense, mesmeric, and truly frightening. Where Dune is purely a space fantasy which does little justice to its multi-layered source material, Blue Velvet manages to be a murder mystery, an erotic thriller, a social satire and a horror film all at the same time. Lynch is a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick, and like Kubrick's work this is a film which requires your full attention to really appreciate it. But once it has your attention, it will never let you go. Just as the final scene of Eraserhead leaves you staring at the screen wondering what the hell just happened, so Blue Velvet will hold you in a trance as you simultaneously flinch and marvel at what occurs on screen.
The references to Kubrick are apparent from the start. The film owes a great deal to The Shining in its eeriness and near-constant suspense. From the first shot after the credits, you're certain that something isn't right, and even the happiest scenes underscore this un-real feeling to the world Lynch puts on screen. In The Shining, the opening 15 minutes are slow-moving and relatively naturalistic; there is still a staged quality to them, but they served as both set-up and contrast to the madness that follows. With Blue Velvet, it's almost as though someone put on The Shining and skipped the introduction; the eerie and all-too-perfect Overlook Hotel looms large over Lynch's Lumberton.
There are also references to Barry Lyndon in Blue Velvet's cinematography. Frederick Elmes said in interviews that Lynch wanted to see how dark they could make the sets, to utilise the potential of shadows and natural light to create tension. Some of the scenes in Dorothy's apartment are seemingly filmed in only natural light, and the multiple staircase scenes have a film noir quality which deepens the sense of murky terror lurking at the heart of the film.
But although Blue Velvet spans genres, at heart it is a film about voyeurism. The crime thriller aspect of it as a metaphor for individuals' desire to dig deeper and discover what lies beneath, even if -- or perhaps because -- they know they will get hurt in the process. Just before Jeffrey sneaks into the apartment, Sandy remarks, "I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert." In Lynch's mind, they are clearly one and the same.
It would have been very easy to take this premise and run with it either as a straightforward erotic thriller or an exploitation film; the result would have been a trashy but enjoyable 90 minutes. But Lynch is too clever for that. Just as Kubrick did in Eyes Wide Shut over a decade later, so Lynch offers the audience sexual titillation and then turns it against us to expose one of our deepest flaws. The theme and experience of voyeurism are present not only in the events unfolding, but in the way you watch them. You watch Isabelli Rossellini undress and the terrifying Dennis Hopper assault her as a voyeur, and throughout the film you have a strange, twisted feeling in your heart and stomach. You're feeling guilty for being there, and yet a strange, animalistic thrill prevents you from leaving or looking away.
One complaint that critics made about Blue Velvet was that in this world there are no shades of grey. But that's the whole point. Again, it would have been easy to have made this film as a more simple genre piece, in this case either as a thriller in which the good outsider stops the bad guys, or as a conspiracy piece about police corruption. But Lynch sticks to his guns, showing that no matter how normal or law-abiding things seem on the surface, once you move behind the picket fence all manner of dark and strange things can occur.
The central point of Blue Velvet is that all those on screen are guilty; all have become corrupted by their desires, and some -- in the case of Frank -- have even been deranged by them. Much like C. Thomas Howell's character in The Hitcher, Jeffrey Beaumont may start out as the hero (so to speak), but as the film progresses his naivety falls away in the face of the evil around him, so that in the end he is as much in the slough of despond as Dorothy Vallens or Frank Booth. The moment that Jeffrey beats Dorothy to calm her down is analogous to the final scene of The Hitcher where Howell shoots Rutger Hauer. In that moment both characters have crossed to the dark side.
As all of this plays out, however, Blue Velvet becomes an oddly moral film insofar as it tackles how one should deal with the guilt and shame. Jeffrey's responses in the second half are admirable in that he tries to bring down and expose Frank, while working on a relationship with Sandy based upon love rather than on using her. As unlikely as it may seem or look on paper, the film has a happy ending, with order seemingly restored and love (and robins) in the air. But knowing Lynch, it may not be that simple. This little battle may be over, but the war may carry on for a long time.
Blue Velvet is a mesmerising masterpiece, albeit one which is not easy to sit through. It's uncomfortable, disturbing, surreal and strange, all of which means that it will stay with you, for better or worse, for all time. The film contains some wonderful performances, from the understated work of Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern to the chillingly psychotic Dennis Hopper and the highly strung Isabella Rossellini (note, incidentally, the subversion of the Hitchcockian stereotype; here the blonde is the hero's salvation and the brunette his downfall). The film is beautifully shot, masterfully directed and possesses a script which is both relaxing and razor-sharp; one wishes David Mamet could have written a script like this when he came to write The Untouchables. A truly strange and terrifying film, one of the best of the 1980s and a must-see for all film fans.