Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Most Unsettling David Lynch Characters

David Lynch has terrified the world and charmed the French with a body of work rooted in nightmarish creeps. That said, picking five of them was easy, but describing the essence of their creepiness less so. Because of that, I’ve included video of their most unsettling moments in case my words fail me.

5. Man behind Winkie’s (Bonnie Aarons, Mulholland Drive, 2001)

So a crusty, dreadlocked hobo dollies out from behind a cement wall in back of a Sunset Boulevard Winkie’s…

When the gents and I first watched Mulholland Drive, we took great pleasure out of the creep whom Shane dubbed “Winkie the breakfast troll.” Although it was hilarious when we watched it in company, the scene is sublimely creepy when seen alone, with headphones, in the dark. For all of Lynch’s difficult subject matter and idiosyncrasies, he knows how to craft a scene. Some might argue that’s all he knows how to do, and his movies are just a collection of such scenes. In any case, the tension here is terrific; the nervous laugh of the tormented man telling the story of his dream; the sinister ambient noise and muted background; his sheer panicked sweat, despite the Winkie’s air-conditioning. As the long shots travel down to the back of the diner, the viewer is filled with a dread much more powerful than the appearance of the actual dream man. It’s quite comical the way that he doesn’t so much step out from behind the wall, but looks wheeled out by some unseen gurney of spookery. All in all, the man is much more unsettling in the minds of the audience, which is exactly how Mr. Lynch wanted him to be.

P.S. The man was also played by a woman.

4. The Baby (Puppet/Cow Fetus, Eraserhead, 1977)


I love Lynch, but I can’t tolerate Eraserhead. It is just too hard to watch. The grotesqueness of the world that it creates is too much for repeat viewing. One of the worst inhabitants of this dank hellhole is the unwanted freak child of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) and girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart).

From Wikipedia:

“The baby is hideously deformed and has an amphibious appearance: a large snout-nose with slit nostrils, a pencil-thin neck, eyes on the sides of its head, no ears, and a limbless body covered in bandages. It continually whines throughout the night.”

Speculation abounds about whether the prop itself was an embalmed cow fetus, or a puppet. Lynch has never confirmed or denied either. Suffice it to say, the thing is as repulsive as offspring gets, but the sound it makes is that much worse. This horrible sack of deformed sickness just keeps crying and whining and making hell for its parents and the viewer. It’s as if you crossed the whining Baby Mario from Yoshi’s Island with a phlegmy salamander with tuberculosis.

It leaves you with a shitty headache and some existential angst for good measure.

3. Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet, 1986)

“Here’s to your fuck!”

Frank Booth is fucked. He’s also #36 on AFI top 50 film villains of all time.

With this character, Dennis Hopper played possibly the most deranged son of a bitch to ever grace the film. His gymnastic use of the word fuck is hilarious— choosing a pull quote for Frank was harder than the list itself:

“HEINEKEN!? Fuck that shit!”

“Don’t say ‘please’ fuckhead!”

“If you receive a love letter from me, you’ll fuck forever! Do you understand, fuck?”

“Let’s fuck! I’ll fuck anything that moves! AHAHAHA!”

Frank is a complete maniac who fucks his way (literally and figuratively) through the film, lobotomizing henchmen, brutalizing Isabella Rossellini, huffing amyl nitrate, and whispering Rob Orbison.

The “Baby wants to fuck!” scene is among the most violently disturbing in Lynch’s considerably disturbing repertoire.

But perhaps most unsettling about Frank is his love of Pabst Blue Ribbon…

2. “Mystery Man” (Robert Blake, Lost Highway, 1997)

“As a matter of fact, I’m there right now…”

Lost Highway was the first Lynch movie I ever saw, and I watched it multiple times before seeing any of his other work. What always stood out for me was the scene at Andy’s party where Fred (Bill Pullman) meets the Mystery Man face to face. Earlier in the film we see the pallid face of Robert Blake projected on that of Fred’s wife (Patricia Arquette) after some of the saddest movie sex of all time. At Andy’s, their encounter is the most iconic of the film.

Fred stands at the bar, and surveys the crowd. He spots a creepy little man in black across the room. As the Mystery Man begins to walk towards him, the music stops and the noise of the party falls to a hush. Robert Blake plays this part devilishly well. During his exchange with Fred, the creepiness is in the Mystery Man’s knowing smile and eerie calm. He grins from ear to ear, and his eyes are like a Great White Shark.

The idea of a man telling you he’s in your house while standing in front of you, then hauling out his intense 90s cell-phone and insisting you call to find out, and then have him fucking answer and deliver a chilling “I told you so” was a mind-fuck for my teenage self. The Mystery Man’s laugh is just the icing on the cake.

Then the muzak starts up again as if nothing happened.

The Mystery Man takes his leave and the viewer is left pondering cinema’s less quoted, and decidedly less wholesome “phone home.”

1. Bobby Peru (Willem Defoe, Wild at Heart, 1990)

“Bobby Peru— just like the country.”

What is most terrifying about Bobby Peru, within this crew of freaks, is that he could be a real person.

Lynch understands reality— he just ignores it, mostly. In Wild at Heart, our heroes meet Bobby Peru in a motel park in Big Tuna, Texas. He’s a greasy criminal in black with a pencil moustache and teeth like the portcullis of a sandcastle. He oozes sleaze and Willem Defoe plays him with the kind of menace that Lynch seems to like best— one that gravitates between goofy and farcical to unpredictable and violent.

Bobby Peru’s most unsettling moment is when he invites himself into Sailor (Nick Cage) and Lula’s (Laura Dern) motel room under the pretence of taking a piss, only to slime her into stunned submission, grab her by the throat and force her to say, “fuck me.”

This scene is deeply disturbing and an analysis of it even makes its way into Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s “The Plague of Fantasies.” While the text is here, the gist is that Bobby Peru essentially forces Lula to consent to rape, and rejects her, thereby humiliating her more than any attack ever could.

Bobby Peru is every truck-stop rapist in Texas slapped with the greasy braggadocio of a cowboy porn-star.

He makes me nauseous, and for that he’s number one.


Cole D'Arc said...

When i first heard Sam had entered the game (now we have FIVE - we've achieved numerical perfection!), i smelled this on the horizon. something like it at least.

I'd forgotten a lot about Lost Highway while all those other characters remain fresh in my mind.

Excellent simile for Peru's teeth.

Few film makers or writers, if any, can create characters as disturbing as Lynch can.

Shane Patenaude said...

A hell of list, man. I can't think of any more deserving creeps.

I hate even thinking about the baby from Eraserhead. I still say it's the worst movie I've ever seen. Watching it made me depressed, angry, confused, annoyed, and nauseous.

The winkie scene is undeniably funny in some ways, but it's also really really frightening on some level that is hard to describe. Between winkie and the mystery man of Lost Highway, I have to give Lynch credit for creating scenes that are like watching a nightmare play out. I've seen some movie sites name the Winkie scene as being the scariest in all of cinema. I don't know if I agree, but I understand why it might be.

Also, wasn't there a character in Fire Walk With Me that was pretty unsettling? Hiding behind a dresser or bed or something? My memory fails me.

Anyhoo, well done.

Sam said...

Yeah. Bob was hiding behind Laura Palmer's dresser in Fire Walk With Me. That was a good one, but more jumpy than unsettling, since it was so short. It did stick with me though...

Brandon said...

I think the baby should be #1. Personally, I never found the others to be that unsettling. In fact, the baby is the primary reason I would not watch Eraserhead. I also do not want to watch "the Alphabet", I heard that scared the heck out of those who saw it.