“It’s a strange world,” young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) tells high school senior Sandy (Laura Dern) following his macabre discovery in some scrubland in the town of Lumberton, North Carolina: a severed human ear.
If the world was strange before, it became a good deal stranger on September 19th, 1986, as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet snuck into just under 100 U.S. cinemas, establishing the writer-director’s recurrent theme of exposing the darkness beneath the surface of American normalcy, as though scraping away at a Norman Rockwell painting had revealed a hitherto unknown work by Bosch or Munch deemed too terrifying for public consumption. J.G. Ballard described the film as “The Wizard of Oz reshot with a script by Kafka and décor by Francis Bacon,” although Frederick Elmes’ stunning cinematography, Angelo Badalamenti’s musical compositions and Alan Splet’s disturbing soundscapes might more accurately be credited for the film’s enduring mix of beauty and horror.
Lynch first had the idea to make a contemporary thriller with teenage heroes prior to making The Elephant Man (1980), and had completed the first drafts of Blue Velvet before production began on Dune (1984) – producer Dino De Laurentiis’ promise to finance Blue Velvet (and, for a cut in salary, give Lynch final cut) had been a key factor in Lynch’s agreement to film Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel, in which MacLachlan also played the lead. As Lynch recalls, three disparate ideas coalesced to form the basis of the story of young Jeffrey Beaumont’s journey into the dark side of a small town: “The first was Bobby Vinton’s song and the mood that came with that song – a mood, a time, and things that were of that time. The next idea I got was that I always wanted to sneak into a girl’s room and night just watch her. The idea was that I would be watching her and I would see a clue, whether I knew it then or later, an important clue to a mystery, like a murder. Then the third idea was the ear in the field, because it would be like finding a ticket to another world. You know, it would change your life.” Lynch sets out his stall early in the film, with the startling colours of his opening montage of American suburban scenes introducing two potent symbols: first, the pressure of a kinked hose building to bursting point; then the swarm of beetles lurking beneath the Beaumonts’ lawn. There’s something rotten in the state of NC.
It’s intriguing to wonder what Blue Velvet might have looked like if it had been cast as Lynch originally intended: with Val Kilmer as Jeffrey Beaumont, Harry Dean Stanton as Frank, Molly Ringwald as Sandy and either Debbie Harry, Hanna Schygulla or Helen Mirren as Dorothy Vallens – all of whom turned the film down due to its dark tone. As it is, each of the actors Lynch ultimately cast – MacLachlan, Dern, Dennis Hopper and Rossellini (with whom Lynch would soon become romantically involved) – would deliver indelible performances, with Hopper in particular creating one of cinema’s all-time antagonists in the certifiably psychotic Frank, inhaling amyl nitrate from a portable tank (at Hopper’s own suggestion, replacing the helium tank Lynch originally envisaged) and menacing Dorothy with his volatile mix of machismo, violence and sexual deviance.
Although Blue Velvet was greeted with widespread critical acclaim, and earned Lynch a second Oscar nomination for Best Director, it was Frank’s treatment of Dorothy (and, by extension, Lynch’s treatment of Rossellini) that led some critics to decry the film as pornographic and misogynistic. In a one-star review, Roger Ebert accused Lynch of being “more sadistic than the Hopper character” in the way he framed Dorothy’s horrific experiences with “jokey, small-town satire.” Thirty years on, Blue Velvet feels like the perfect distillation of Lynch’s lifelong obsessions, notably the stripping away of the veneer of small town American life to reveal the horror and despair beneath, themes to which he would return in Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. Lynch, the former Eagle Scout who described his small town upbringing as unfailingly happy and uneventful, could find darkness in the most innocent of places: beneath the white picket fences and sprinkler-fed lawns of suburbia, in the exotically flawed beauty of actress Isabella Rossellini, in Bobby Vinton’s dreamy “Blue Velvet”. He even found a way to make seemingly innocent lyrics such as “Love letters straight from your heart” (Kitty Lester) and “In dreams I walk with you” (Roy Orbison) sinister and threatening.
From velvet-curtained overture to clockwork-robin denouement, Blue Velvet stands as an enduring American masterpiece, oscillating discomfortingly between dreamlike eccentricity and nightmarish intensity, and as strange, disturbing and full of mystery as the underworld into which Jeffrey finds himself drawn.
Unless, of course, it was all a dream.
David Hughes is the author of The Complete Lynch