My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 25 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
You Look Like A Clown In That Stupid Jacket
No safety net this time. No Googling, no re-watches. This one’s a free-fall with memory and scotch. Let’s see where we land.
I’m going with ‘94, ‘95 tops. So I’m 15/16. My memory is Channel 4’s ‘Without Walls’ season, but who the hell knows this far out? I’ve got a feeling – and this applies to a lot of the things I’ve written about, though I haven’t yet mentioned it – that when I first recorded it from the telly, I may have missed the opening. Or maybe on the first viewing I came in ten minutes in. That feels significant. Like an artefact of the analogue world we’ve all but left behind. How often will my daughter have to endure the indignity of watching a movie from the fifteen minute marker? Never, is my guess, unless by choice, what with OD and iPlayer and +1 and Netflix and YouTube and all the rest. Digital means never having to say ‘oh well, I missed the beginning’.
Doesn’t matter. I went back and watched the whole thing many, many times. Last viewing was several years ago, with the missus. She didn’t like it much. Which is a valid response. It’s one of those films.
Me, I love it.
First, it’s all about fire, burning. Lots of close ups on matches, smouldering cigarettes. Amorphous flaming backgrounds over the titles. Beautiful roaring yellow flame. And of course a fire forms a significant moment in the film – there’s an argument to be made that the reveal of the events of the fire is, in fact, the pivot moment of the movie, the moment where it turns from a slightly surreal but fun road trip movie into something altogether darker, weirder, and more scary.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We open, if memory serves, in Cape Fear. There’s a year given, but it eludes me. Glen Miller’s ‘In The Mood’ is playing (the first time I typed that it came out Frank Miller, which I think I would pay to hear, but alas). Gorgeous ballroom ceiling. A young Lana Dern is wearing a dress. She is also gorgeous. A young-ish-but-older-than-her black man says, ‘Yo Sailor, wait up!’. Then he takes her hand and in a quieter voice says ‘you’re mine, baby.’ Her face indicates intense dislike at this sentiment.
The man catches up with Nick Cage, who is also young and also gorgeous. Additionally, he is wearing a jacket of some distinction.
“You know, I been talking to Talula’s momma.”
“Uh-oh!” Nick is breathing heavy, sweating. He is grinning but his teeth are clenched. He looks crazy scared or crazy angry. Maybe both.
“She said you been trying to fuck her in the toilet for the last ten minutes!” He laughs at this. Maybe this is where Mr. Cage says “uh-oh”.
“You’re one sick puppy! Tryin’ to fuck your girl’s mother!”
He pulls a wad of money from his pocket.
“You know, she gave me this... to kill you. And after...”
It all happens at once. A switchblade appears in his other hand, is deployed. As he finishes his sentence, something about getting Tallulah, Ms. Dern yells ‘Sailor, he’s got a knife!” Like, shrieks it, like some 40’s-B&W-movie-star-in-a-horror-flick shriek, and then BAM! Sailor (for it is he) springs into action, disarming his attacker and then beating him to death with is bare hands. He achieves this by smashing the man’s head repeatedly against first the metal hand rail at the edge of the stairs, then on the marble floor. He grips the man’s head in both his hands as he does this last, sweat and spit flying from him as blood spatters from the head of the man. Talula shrieks his name twice more, loud enough to distort the sound, push the needle into the red, and a crushing heavy metal riff plays. After far too long, Sailor stops, and stands panting over the body. He reaches inside his pocket and pulls out a pack of cigarettes, shaking a Marlboro out and into his mouth. He lights it with a Zippo and looks up the stairs, past Tallulah. Her mother stands at the top of the stairs, glowering at Sailor. If looks could kill. He takes cigarette from his mouth, staining the white paper red with the blood from his hands, and points an accusing, dripping finger at her, eyes also full of hate. She makes cat claws with her fingers.
We’re 5 minutes in. Welcome to Wild At Heart.
Here’s the thing. I missed Twin Peaks on broadcast, I was just too young. And I didn’t find Blue Velvet or Lost Highway until years later. So this is the first time I meet David Lynch – in what has to be his most openly juvenile movie, at the absolute perfect age to connect completely. I mean, come on – suave young rebel in a snakeskin jacket, achingly gorgeous young girlfriend, evil step-mum (is that right? It feels right), killer soundtrack, road trip, oh, and mommy’s sent not one but two PI’s after the kids, one of whom has ties to the weird side of organised crime, including links to the some of the freakiest hitpersons you could ever have the misfortune of meeting. I know Nick Cage is kind of a marmite performer anyway, and I know that’s compounded by the fact that he apparently never read a script he didn’t like, but here he is young and vital, and anyway, it’s David Lynch, and anyway anyway, I never saw him before, and if he’ll never be this cool again, he fucking well was this cool once, and it is glorious to behold.
Frankly, everything about this film is glorious to behold. Lana Dunn is a revelation as Tallulah – it’s a part that could so easily slip into parody, but holy shit she owns it, making her girl real, vulnerable, wonderful. There’s a fear behind the eyes, and the way that feeds into her obsessive love for her man demonstrates an incredibly intelligent performance that elevates the character. Cage is captivating too, owning the screen every second the camera is on him, smouldering, laughing, crying, fighting. People bang on about the Elvis thing, and sure, that’s there, explicitly, but the less mentioned but to my mind more pertinent comparison is Jimmy Dean – the car, the hair, the smokes, the dumb jacket (red leather for Dean, snakeskin for Cage). Also, the crack cocaine combination of beautiful vulnerability and explosive violent rage. Like Dean, he is jaw-droppingly attractive – impossibly so, like a visitor from another planet. Also like Dean, in spite of his rage, we fear for him, so clearly over his head, locked into a deteriorating orbit. We know how this story ends, and it’s never good for Romeo.
And together – yes, alright, they burn up the screen, what else am I supposed to say?
Anyway, it’s true, even without all the sledgehammer imagery. Yes, there’s chemistry, of course, but more, there’s the uncertainty, the fragility of young love. The things left unsaid, the uncomfortable silences. There’s a fucking amazing scene where Sailor admits to Tallulah that not only had he known her dead father, but that he’d been present the night he’d died (in, of course, a fire). The way it plays out – him telling the story, hardly daring to look at her, her, eyes fixed outside the moving car, into the passing night – you feel the relationship shift in the moment, something bend, perhaps even break. They start the conversation in one place and finish in another, and from there the deterioration – of their story and their love – has a crushing inevitability.
I’m getting ahead of myself again. Ah, but it hardly matters. It’s not quite The Big Labowski, which arguably only works well on a second viewing, but suffice it to say there’s a density to the film that rewards repeat viewings. Besides, the narrative is oddly disjointed – there’s a moment where one of the PI’s tracking the kids (the good one, the poor doomed one) describes to the (step)mother them leaving the hotel, and we actually see it for a couple of seconds. At one point Tallulah sees her mother as the wicked witch in her rear-view mirror, complete with broomstick and pointy hat. Oz references are scattered throughout, and again, it’s not subtle, but it does serve as flavour, adding a surreal edge to proceedings.
So much weirdness, so much darkness, feeding into and off of each other. Mr. Reindeer, clearly the head of some kind of freak Mafia, topless young women everywhere, sitting on the toilet with a gold plated chunky mobile phone, watching a girl dance for him while he suavely takes the particulars of Marcellus Santos’ hit requirements. The use of a silver dollar as the token, and it’s reappearance when poor doomed Johnny Faraday is shown one ‘just before the act’, and the way his face collapses as he realises he’s been betrayed. The strange courtship between him and Tallulah’s mother. The woman the kids find in a car wreck late at night, who delivers a disjointed monologue before collapsing and bleeding out – the way she continues to worry at a bleeding head wound with her finger, complaining about ‘sticky stuff in her hair’, is at once heartbreaking and cringe inducing. There’s an establishing shot in the street in New Orleans, and two men are walking down the street. The one furthest from the road is turned to the other, making monkey noises as they walk, whilst the other laughs.
Another stand out sequence occurs as the kids go to see a metal band at a club. In the mosh pit, Sailor is not so much dancing as apparently fighting off a gang of invisible ninjas when he sees someone grope his girl. With a hand gesture, he stops the band from playing, confronts the guy, and after a short but very satisfying stand-off ( “you look like a clown in that stupid jacket.” “This here’s a snakeskin jacket. It represents my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” “Asshole.”) and an even shorter fight, proceeds to lead the band in a passable rendition of the Elvis track ‘Treat Me Like A Fool’ while the girls scream and Talullah prunes and melts. It’s batshit insane, and should be dreadful. It’s not dreadful. It’s awesome.
The weirdness and the darkness. And of course at a certain point, that darkness becomes a tailspin, as the kids run out of money and find themselves in Big Tuna, Texas. There they meet the weirdest, darkest character yet.
There, they meet Bobby Peru.
Bobby Peru is as dark a creation of cinema as I can immediately think of. Played masterfully by Willam DeFoe, Bobby is a Vietnam vet with a psychotic rage that is not-really-at-all masked by his grinning, exaggerated good cheer exterior. He is incredibly creepy from the moment he sits down to drink whiskey with the kids, and when he later invites Sailor into an armed bank robbery caper, no-body, even Sailor himself, really thinks it’s a good idea. But there’s a grim inevitability to the narrative by this point, and the realisation that not only is Peru bad news on his own terms but is actually an agent of Mr. Reindeer, there to fulfil the second part of Santos’ contract, we are dismayed and upset, but not really surprised.
The robbery sequence is brilliantly handled, Lynchian in all the best meanings of that term. And given the options, things end about as well as they can for Sailor. The jump forward in time for the epilogue, in which Sailor meets his infant son, rejects Talulah, gets knocked unconscious, meets the good witch, and returns to his woman and son to declare his love in song as the credits roll again sound bloody awful when expressed in those terms, but is transcendent in execution. You really had to be there, is what I’m trying to say.
I was there, and I’m damn grateful. I have a fairly low tolerance for the grotesque (thanks in no small part to an early exposure to the movie Tommy, about which more anon) which means most Lynch is almost inaccessible for me – viewed with clenched teeth. Wild At Heart is toned down for him, making it just about tolerable for me, but the rage and the darkness and the weirdness and the horror and the fire all combined with my teenage brain in a discordant symphony most pleasing.
If you can ever remember feeling like you really WERE Wild At Heart, without irony or embarrassment, then this film may just get you back there for a couple of hours (of course, it may not). If that doesn’t interest you, I’m sad for you.
But I’m happy for me. Because it still gets me there.
Fuck it. I’m gonna go watch it again.
PS – Thanks to James Newman, for posting a quote from this movie on Facebook that brought the whole thing crashing back into my mind. Appreciate the inspiration, brother.