The Twin Peaks TV show is remembered for being strange, but its real legacy is its influence. Even 24 years later, we’re inundated with crime dramas with supernatural themes, murder mysteries that take an entire season (or longer) to solve, and tales of small towns with deep, dark secrets. But Fire Walk With Me, the movie prequel to the series, is a very different—and very bizarre—beast.
To put it simply, 1992's Fire Walk With Me is a prequel to the TV series which fills in some of the blanks of Laura Palmer’s danger-addicted life. But there’s little else simple about this seedy, bizarre movie. Even if you were an avid viewer of the show—and despite its inclusion of certain familiar Twin Peaks characters and settings—watching Fire Walk With Me is nothing short of a mind-bending and even troubling experience.
Incredibly, even within the filmography of the singular David Lynch, it’s a truly weird and disturbing movie. On top of the many moments of trademark Lynch surrealism—like all of the minor characters who wander into the frame with no purpose other than to make everyone feel ill at ease—the pacing in the film is a bit unusual. There’s a 30-minute prologue in which FBI agents poke into the murder of a Laura Palmer-ish victim in Oregon, use a dancing girl as a code to talk about the investigation, and appear and disappear randomly. The case is just starting to get juicy when everything stops, the Twin Peaks theme plays, and we get into the main story, which shows us what Laura was up to in the days before her death.
And what was Laura—whose pretty corpse held the TV show’s central mystery together—up to? Sheryl Lee’s portrayal of the doomed teen holds absolutely nothing back emotionally; even Naomi Watts’ star-spangled emoting for Lynch’s Mulholland Drive nearly a decade later can’t touch this show of hysterical tears, drugged-out dancing, sexpot manipulation, blundering innocence, and abject terror. Lee’s scream is so devastating it morphs Fire Walk With Me from a noir thriller into a straight-up horror movie whenever she unleashes it; there’s also a supremely bizarre scene in which she giggles hysterically before, during, and (most distressingly) after a drug deal gone terribly wrong.
The performance doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In addition to being a drug addict, Laura’s been abused by her father (and tormented by related nightmares and apparent supernatural forces) for years. It’d be strange if she wasn’t a complete mess. On TV, Twin Peaks had Agent Cooper as its focal point, and while the show had plenty of freaky moments, there was always that droll, deadpan central character to come back to. Fire Walk With Me is intensely focused on the moody, dramatic Laura, whether she’s macking on a paying customer at the Roadhouse, or being terrorized by Mike, the One-Armed Man, there’s always the sense of something bad about to happen. It’s a painfully raw performance—accompanied and enhanced by frequent, intimate close-ups of Laura’s face—and over two hours, it can get a bit exhausting.
When Fire Walk With Me came out in 1992, New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby said it was “not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree.” He wasn’t the only viewer who felt this way. Over time, of course, Fire Walk With Me has become a cult hit, even apart from the show. Last year, IndieWire called the film an “underrated masterpiece.” It may not be as fun to watch as Twin Peaks. It’s not as quirky and it doesn’t have an alluring mystery driving its plot. But it’s just as unique of a work—and way, way weirder. Time hasn’t dulled that one bit.