Given how critically adored David Lynch is today, it’s a stretch to remember a time when it was generally thought this most fearless and idiosyncratic of directors was all washed up.
But by the end of 1992, Lynch’s cultural cachet — which had been flying high after Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart — had crashed.
His sixth feature, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, had debuted in May 1992 at the Cannes Film Festival, to boos from the audience and reviews that would be considered brutal even for Uwe Boll.
After the movie’s US release on 28 August (30 years ago this week) it would end up grossing $4 million domestically against a $10 million budget. It was all a far cry from just two years before when Twin Peaks mania had gripped the country and Lynch was being deified as the man who’d elevated TV to new skycraping highs.
Read more: How Twin Peaks rose and fell
By the time of Fire Walk With Me’s release, however, it’s not as if there was a public thirst for more Twin Peaks. The series had been canned in 1991, after ratings nosedived from a high of 34.6 million during season one to a pitiful 7.4 in season two.
By the time Lynch unleashed that gleefully avant-garde final episode on 10 June, 1991, only the faithful were still tuning in, and even they were left in limbo after a cliffhanger ending — where the series’ hero, Agent Dale Cooper, is taken over by the spirit known as Killer Bob — that looked like it might never be resolved.
Until, that is, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost inked a deal with French company Ciby 2000 for a trilogy of films continuing the Twin Peaks story. The pair would clash, however, over what that first movie was going to be. Frost wanted a direct continuation, whereas Lynch preferred a prequel, focusing on the last days of Laura Palmer. Frost walked, and Lynch hired Twin Peaks series producer Robert Engels as his co-scribe.
Frost’s exit wasn’t the last of Fire Walk With Me’s woes. Fearing typecasting, Kyle MacLachlan was reluctant to sign on as Agent Cooper and only agreed to appear if his part was drastically downsized. Additionally, Lara Flynn Boyle, who, as Laura’s BFF Donna Hayward, was integral to the story Lynch wanted to tell, refused to return, forcing the director to recast with actress Moira Kelly.
Read more: David Lynch receives honorary Oscar
It’s easy to forget now how un-fantastical that first series of Twin Peaks was. Aside from a solitary dream sequence, those early episodes played out like a fairly conventional, if somewhat quirkier-than-normal, murder-mystery. It’s likely that many of those millions who were asking the question ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ in the summer of 1990 were scratching their heads when it was revealed that the answer was an evil spirit inhabiting the body of Laura’s dad.
If Lynch ramped up the weirdness in season two, it was nothing compared to the stygian horror of Fire Walk With Me. Critics and audiences were left bewildered and, some cases, infuriated, by the movie’s wilful oddness and its narrative ambiguities (though ostensibly a prequel, there are moments that allude to events after the last episode, while the first 32 minutes play out like an almost totally separate story). There was little of the cosy eccentricity that defined much of the series, while many fan favourite characters — Audrey Horne, Harry Truman, Dr Jacoby, Ed Hurley et al — were nowhere to be seen.
While the movie agitated some Twin Peaks loyalists desperate for a resolution to season two’s cliffhanger, you needed a granular knowledge of the series to have any hope of understanding Fire Walk With Me. No wonder audiences stayed away in ‘92. Many of those who had got caught up in the Peaks mania of 1990 recognised little of their once-favourite show in this unflinching arthouse horror, while those unfamiliar with the world of Twin Peaks would have needed a degree-level course in the series’ mythology to decode it.
While critics in 1990 had hailed David Lynch as the saviour of network TV, this time they were lining up to excoriate him.
“It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be,” wrote the New York Times’ Vincent Canby. “It glazes the eyes and the mind.” Variety’s Todd McCarthy, meanwhile, was no fan: “Laura Palmer, after all the talk, is not a very interesting or compelling character and long before the climax has become a tiresome teenager,” he grumbled.
Read more: Directors who disowned their own movies
“David Lynch probably should have let Laura Palmer stay dead,” suggested The Hollywood Reporter. Even fellow filmmakers piled in. “David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different,” opined Quentin Tarantino. “And you know, I loved him. I loved him.”
But then, over the years, something happened. Look on Fire Walk With Me’s Wiki page and there’s an entire section dedicated to its ‘reappraisal’. Critics had fallen back in love with Lynch after 2001’s Mulholland Drive, a film so opaque and outré that it made Fire Walk With Me look like Midsomer Murders, and suddenly this Twin Peaks movie somehow made more sense. Then there was Twin Peaks: The Return, the 2017 Showtime series that continued the story left hanging in 1991. This 18-episode season finally enshrined Fire Walk With Me as a vital part of the wider Twin Peaks lore.
Thirty years on from its release, Fire Walk With Me is now seen as Lynch’s unsung masterpiece, a movie that finally gave the character at the centre of the Twin Peaks mystery, Laura Palmer, her humanity. And it’s a film that grows stronger from multiple viewings. There’s simply too much going on, narratively and emotionally, for it to be digested in a single sitting, one of the likely reasons for those splenetic reviews back in ‘92.
“I love the film,” Lynch told Deadline in 2018. “With Dune, I sold out on that early on, because I didn’t have final cut, and it was a commercial failure, so I died two times with that. With Fire Walk With Me, it didn’t go over well at the time, but I loved it so I only died once, for the commercial failure and the reviews and things.”
Happily, Lynch is aware of the film’s critical rehabilitation.
Read more: The many failed attempts to make Dune
“Now, people have revisited that film,” he went on, “and they feel differently about it. When a thing comes out, the feeling in the world – you could call it the collective consciousness – is a certain way, and so it dictates how the thing’s going to go. Then the collective consciousness changes and people come around.”
Five years ago, Fire Walk With Me was released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the hallowed Criterion Collection, a clear sign of its now-venerated status.
It may only be able to boast 64% on Rotten Tomatoes, but that doesn’t reflect the ever-swelling respect for this most challenging and rewarding of movies.
When Lynch received a standing ovation at Cannes for Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017 he wept. It seemed a belated vindication for what the director had to endure at that same festival a quarter of a century before.
Watch a clip from Twin Peaks: The Return