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Exploring the True Horror of David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE

It’s arguable as to whether well-regarded artist and filmmaker David Lynch should be considered a horror filmmaker — he certainly deals with nightmares and nightmarish imagery, but horror fans don’t typically consider him a “Master of Horror” alongside names like Carpenter, Romero, Craven, Cronenberg and the like. While many of his films tend to hover around an ineffable sense of existential dread (only DUNE, WILD AT HEART and THE STRAIGHT STORY don’t feel deeply terrifying), and just as many feature scenes of extreme violence (the splatter of ERASERHEAD, the murders of LOST HIGHWAY and TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, the torture of BLUE VELVET), some would be hard-pressed to lump him in with iconic genre filmmakers.

Maybe it’s because Lynch represents a genre unto himself; he is one of those rare, unique artists whose only classification is their own self-born adjective. “Lynchian” has become a common word — at least in the circles of cineastes — used to describe anything abstract and surreal, but also downbeat, fearful, and bizarre. Even if he can’t be classified as a horror auteur in the traditional sense, Lynch still makes films that leave one fearful.

Lynch’s last film, INLAND EMPIRE, was released in 2006 — to the excitement of arthouse crowds, and to the mixed reviews of critics who either didn’t quite understand, or simply didn’t jibe with, the loosey-goosey horror surrealism of the piece. INLAND EMPIRE is so oblique and off-the-cuff (and, at 180 minutes, so long) that it doesn’t have as powerful a cult following as some of Lynch’s earlier films. Even among the self-styled pop intelligentsia, it is regarded as a chore to sit through. It is also, one may find, one of Lynch’s most terrifying films.

INLAND EMPIRE is an existential treatise on identity — one of Lynch’s career-long preoccupations — and gets at the heart of what a lot of horror is really about: The fear of vanishing from the world entirely.

The project itself was constructed in a unique fashion. It’s a collage of sorts, partly constructed of short films that Lynch had previously made for exclusive subscribers to his website; many scenes, however, were a filmic experiment wherein Lynch would dream up a scene (sometimes literally), and then call Laura Dern the next morning to film in his backyard, or whatever locale they could find.

There was no initial script, and many of the scenes weren’t meant to connect in any sort of meaningful way. It wasn’t until Lynch had accrued enough footage — and felt enough of the muse singing through him — that he began to construct a loose narrative around the scenes.

The “story” ended up being about an actress named Nikki Grace (Dern) who is hired to star in a mysterious film called ON HIGH IN BLUE TOMORROWS. This film came with portents: a scary woman (Grace Zabriskie) warns her vaguely of evil, and eventually she is told by the film’s director that the project is a remake of an unfinished German thriller called 47, which was previously abandoned because both leads had been murdered… and perhaps it is, because Nikki finds herself becoming perhaps a little too immersed in her character.

It’s not long before Nikki vanishes entirely, and becomes “Sue.” Her fictional husband and the “real” husband begin to interchange, and time is abandoned altogether. Nikki/Sue is now lost is a whirling tornado of ineffable happenstance, where she is unsure of who she is, and whose identity shifts from one scene to the next. Sometimes she is an Eastern European prostitute; sometimes she’s an actress.

It’s difficult to describe the story of INLAND EMPIRE, as, after a while, it becomes a mere description of the images on screen, and not any sort of understandable narrative journey… and yet, you feel nothing but fear.

Most horror fans know the famous quotation by H.P. Lovecraft about how the oldest and strongest fear is fear of the unknown. I think with INLAND EMPIRE Lynch has taken this notion to heart, crafting a haunting film about inner discord. Even if you don’t understand the plot in any sort of conventional way, even the most casual observer can understand that INLAND EMPIRE is trying to take everything that may be familiar — especially about one’s self — and trying to transmute it into something unknown, or even unknowable. The film is, in simple terms, a remolding of basic knowable concepts into the unknown… and a fearsome unknown at that.

Conceptually, then, INLAND EMPIRE seeks to do what all horror films seek to do — that is, turn the everyday into something terrifying. But while “everyday objects” in most horror films tend to tangible — the suburban home, children, animals, haunted objects, etc. — INLAND EMPIRE is banking on the conceptual. It forces us to look at something we had previously taken for granted — our own identity and concepts of what is real — and call it into question… and, of course, the loss of one’s identity is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.

There’s a reason why so many horror movies are about transformation — for example, what if you became a werewolf or a vampire? What would make you become a killer? What if the Borg assimilated you into the collective? What if a troll tried to turn you into a plant? Okay, maybe ignore that last example… but the point is, what if you became something else? What would happen to your very you-ness?

Lynch, rather than use a werewolf or a vampire to address this question, used something in INLAND EMPIRE that we, as movie fans, are far more intimately connected with: Acting. Lynch seems to greatly respect actors, and their ability to subsume their own personalities into a fiction that — for the length of a film — is meant to be reality. It’s an odd profession — people essentially give you money to no longer be yourself — and while many actors take a great deal of pleasure and exhilaration from the process, Lynch seems to see acting as a risky endeavor: What if you don’t just become your character for a day? What if the character becomes so strong that it takes over?

To Lynch, that risk is a heroic one: it’s dangerous letting go of your identity… and when it comes to acting, isn’t that something we all do? Don’t we subtly alter our own identities throughout the day to approach people and approach the world? Lynch may be trying to turn our very identities into a mutable creature — and that, to the filmmaker, is truly, truly terrifying.

Lynch used to love working with 35mm film, but eventually became frustrated with its slowness, and called the technology “a dinosaur.” He shot INLAND EMPIRE digitally, letting his own freewheeling creative process take over, allowing the film to grow organically. In so doing, Lynch must have either burned himself out, or merely come to the conclusion that the process of making movies simply didn’t have the thrill it once did. Lynch has more or less retired from films altogether, and INLAND EMPIRE may very well be his final word… unless, that is, his highly-anticipated return to TWIN PEAKS has sparked a new cinematic flame.

I understand that the sort of existential dread and abstract fear presented in INLAND EMPIRE may be off-putting to a horror fan looking for jump-scares, gore, and more prurient, quantitative pleasures; a 180-minute story-less meditation on the dangers and psychology of identity is, in short, not everyone’s bag. But those seeking a more cerebral experience — and who have a great deal of patience — would do very well to give INLAND EMPIRE a few tries.

Explore this labyrinth of dread… you may find a horror classic lurking somewhere inside.

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