Blue Velvet, Brad Dourif, David Lynch, De Laurintiis Entertainment Group, Dean Stockwell, Frances Bay, Frank Booth, Hope Lange, Isabella Rossellini, Jack Nance, Jeffrey Beaumont, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, My Year of VHS
I first experienced Blue Velvet when I was 15, in the wake of having stumbled onto Twin Peaks on TV. At the time my intentional consumption of weird cinema had about been limited to Monty Python and Troma, although my dad had started sitting me down to watch American New Wave films by then, so I think I knew who Dennis Hopper was when I first met “Frank Booth.” I mentally categorize Hopper as one of those actors who plays a crazy person so well that he might actually be crazy, and I think it is because of this film. His Frank is dangerous because he’s insane, but it’s also impossible to look away from him. There is humor mixed in with the horror which makes for a confusing yet ultimately satisfying watch. I’ve seen this at least once a year for the past 27 years, and even studied it in my first semester of college English, but I’m still processing it, and it almost becomes a different film every time. Having said that, I do believe it is David Lynch’s most accessible and straightforward work. You either enjoy a trip to Lynchland or you don’t, I feel; people either want to go to the Black Lodge and dance around with the doppelgangers, or they think he’s pretentious. Obviously I’m one of the former.
The plot is fairly straightforward, and although it is a more complete story than Twin Peaks, it draws the inevitable comparisons, especially now that Twin Peaks is so much on our minds with the premiere of season 3 being less than a month away. The recurring theme of corruption in a small town is on display in the first five minutes, as a man calmly watering his garden on an idyllic day suddenly collapses with what is indicated by the waterhose having a kink in it as a stroke. There is that immediate dark humor we’ve come to expect from Lynch as a dog fights with the hose the poor man is still holding, and then a nasty turn as the camera zooms in on beetles in the grass fighting to the death. The beetles seem like a throwaway shot at first, but they are very important at the end of the film. Anyway, now that the stroke victim, who we come to know owns the local hardware store, is hospitalized, his college age son Jeffrey (Lynch’s muse Kyle MacLachlan) has to leave school to run the store. While visiting his dad in the hospital, he finds a severed human ear in the vacant lot between the house and the hospital, and gets involved (against the wishes of the detective he turns the ear over to) in investigating the mystery of who has lost the ear.
He soon finds by talking to the lead detective’s high school age daughter Sandy (another Lynch regular, Laura Dern) that the crime involves a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Jeffrey decides to sneak into her apartment and look for clues while Sandy keeps a lookout, but pulls a Vincent Vega and misses the horn blowing signal that Dorothy is on the way up because he’s using the bathroom. When she finds him hiding in her closet, she is trying to decide what to do with him when local lowlife underworld kingpin Frank knocks on the door, so it’s back into the closet for Jeffrey to witness Frank in action. Frank has kidnapped Dorothy’s husband (the ex-ear owner) and their son so he can play out what I gather is a strange fetish he has: he huffs something from a canister he keeps in his coat, babbles a bunch of awkward pillow talk while physically and sexually assaulting Dorothy, and then stands up and shakes his hand like a kid who thinks he has cooties. During parts of this both of them have her blue velvet robe clenched in their teeth.
Even though it is horrific, Frank is also pathetic, and intentionally ridiculous. I know this in my heart, and I have seen enough other people react to it to know that in parts of this film, many of the things Frank says and does are intentionally funny, albeit in an uncomfortable way. And this is necessary so that both we and Jeffrey continue to underestimate Frank, so that the action of the story can play out to the point that Frank must be destroyed. To clarify: Frank’s not an anti-hero, but Dennis Hopper is so entertaining for most of the film that he’s not as scary as someone who is doing what he’s doing should be. This I have come to believe is crucial for his final scene in the film to work, when he does ultimately become terrifying, because it is so jarring to see him go from an incoherent weirdo to a killing machine.
Anyway, even though Jeffrey starts out as a peeping Tom, and Dorothy has no idea he is there to investigate what has happened to her husband, Jeffrey and Dorothy decide to keep secretly meeting up in her apartment, (and Jeffrey is also romancing sweet Sandy on the side.) Because of the psychological damage done by Frank, Dorothy keeps pressuring Jeffrey to hit her during sex. The night Jeffrey finally does hit her, Frank shows up soon after, and again the resulting scenes are so out there that I wouldn’t say it takes away from the film, but it is a thing that could only happen in a David Lynch movie. The plot is simple, but then the real meat of the film is these weird side characters and their interactions. Frank, now accompanied by his equally crazy but seemingly less dangerous pals played by Brad Dourif and Lynch anti-muse Jack Nance, kidnaps Dorothy and Jeffrey and takes them on a baffling joyride to Lynchland.
Here is where things get quotable and even farther removed from the horror we should be feeling. Frank decides that they simply must go and visit his friend Ben, played by a heavily made up Dean Stockwell. It is important to note that Ben seems to be the only person, other than a corrupt cop character who will later be revealed, who is not afraid of Frank. So although we’re never told quite who Ben is, it is clear that he is higher up on the food chain than Frank. We’re meant to think that almost no one in the town other than the police and somehow Jeffrey’s elderly aunt (Twin Peaks garmonbozia enthusiast Frances Bay) knows about all the corruption, but Ben seems perfectly relaxed about his own evilness, to the point that the entrance to his building literally has a red neon sign that reads “This Is It.” This house is the place where a lot of the secret criminal activity is centered.
If I knew more about Ben I might have written this article about him, but he definitely is almost on a par with The Lady in the Radiator as far as inscrutable Lynch characters go. He lives with a battalion of aging hookers, probably sells drugs, and has a disturbing habit of slightly widening his eyes while talking. He also smokes from an evil cigarette holder, and in order to entertain Frank, lip synchs the Roy Orbison song “Candy Colored Clown” into a lamp in such a nonchalant way that you can tell it isn’t the first such command performance. Oh, and he is the one holding Dorothy’s husband and son captive on behalf of Frank. This is the portion of the movie that has all the good lines uttered by Frank, including “Fucking suave,” “Let’s fuck! I’ll fuck anything that moves,” “Fuck Heineken! Pabst! Blue Ribbon,” and “Let’s hit the fucking road.”
At this point in the film I realized, on my most recent viewing, that I could better explain Frank by contrasting him with the other Blue Velvet characters, and even with Leland Palmer. Dorothy proclaims to Jeffrey that she is not crazy, because she knows the difference between right and wrong. Frank clearly does not. And at the end of the joyride, when Frank beats Jeffrey within an inch of his life, Jeffrey is upset not because he was beaten up, not because he wants revenge, but because he is so ashamed the next morning remembering himself slapping Dorothy. Frank in his throes of whatever it is he has in that canister (it’s not helium, as people online like to suggest, and I’ve always assumed it was laughing gas, but it could be something Lynch made up just like creamed corn being the souls of the damned) reminds me of Leland Palmer when possessed by Bob, but Leland has a reckoning at the end of his life that almost makes you pity him. Frank has no such moment of clarity, other than to pause and look at Jeffrey and say in a chilling voice, “You’re like me.” But Jeffrey is not entirely like Frank. Frank is a pure psychopath, who can’t fathom that anyone has motivations beyond what he wishes for them to do. Fortunately, this turns out to be his downfall.
In the final confrontation between Jeffrey and Frank, when we think Frank might kill Jeffrey in Dorothy’s apartment, Frank finally blossoms into the full villain of the evening he should have been all along. Why he didn’t kill Jeffrey after the evening at fucking suave Ben’s house I don’t know, but he means to kill him now, and the suspense ratchets up as he searches through Dorothy’s small apartment for Jeffrey’s hiding place. But Jeffrey has outsmarted him, which is something that never occurred to Frank, because he is such a narcissist that he thinks everyone else is stupid. There is no supernatural subplot here, just an evil human being, the thing that most rational people will tell you is actually more scary than an alternate dimension full of demons. Me, I’m scared of demons and of people like Frank, and I think what makes him so scarily iconic is how disarming all of his earlier buffoonery is, juxtaposed with how efficient he almost is when he gets down to business. But it could just be uneven tone, as some critics have suggested. I’d not like to think so.
Remember the beetles from the beginning of the film? This is the really scary part. In the middle of the story Sandy has a dream that there are no robins, and therefore no love, and then the robins return. At the very end, we see a robin on Jeffrey’s windowsill with a beetle in its mouth, seeming to suggest that the threat has been neutralized: Frank is dead, the corrupt cop is dead, and Dorothy has her son back. But you see, there were lots of beetles in the grass while Jeffrey’s dad was having his stroke. The film doesn’t address what happened to Ben and Brad Dourif and Jack Nance and all their other associates. They might cool it for a while, they may even relocate a few miles up the fucking road, but the bad folks will eventually start getting together at night again and they’ll be calling someone boss. I believe that maybe Sandy and Jeffrey are privileged to disassociate themselves from their little walk on the dark side, but there are still other Franks out there waiting to happen to other Dorothys. There always are. I guess, too, that there are always people like me who love to have a good old stare at psychos from the comfort of my living room cocoon.
If you’re just stopping in for the Great Villains Blogathon, I am doing a year of going exclusively through movies I have in my VHS collection for the blog, so I always end with a description of my tape. My copy of Blue Velvet is the KTV-TV Karl-Lorimar Video release in a cut box. Although I got it at a thrift store, t was originally owned by one of the two Video Warehouse rental stores here in my hometown, which is where I would have originally rented the movie in 1990, so I like to think I now own the first copy I ever saw.
P.S. I’m not a fan of people who try to make every film into a “that was just a dream” copout, but I did notice on this most recent viewing that the camera zooms into the severed ear at the beginning, and then zooms out of Jeffrey’s ear at the end as he naps on a chaise lounge the morning after Frank is killed. This could be an indication that Frank is a side of Jeffrey he explores safely in fantasy or dreams. In dreams I walk with you, in dreams I talk with you, etc. But that makes the movie much less interesting.