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Not Quite Horror: Mulholland Drive (2001)

Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s David Lynch’s infamous Mulholland Drive.

Earlier this year, a selection of the world’s most well-respected film critics, from all over the world, collectively voted Mulholland Drive as the greatest movie of the 21st century. Horror fans loudly bemoaned the lack of genre picks (likewise comedy) on a list 100-strong. But fear not, because, along with fellow spot occupiers Requiem For A Dream and Zodiac, Lynch‘s 2001 masterpiece is also one of our greatest modern examples of Not Quite Horror. And we can therefore claim it as our own (kind of).

As mesmeric as it is endlessly perplexing, Lynch’s surrealist Hollywood nightmare is the kind of movie that slowly creeps under your skin, burrowing deep until you’re not quite sure where you are. Set as it is among the so-called beautiful people in sun-drenched LA, its darkness seeps into the corners of the frame with razor-sharp proficiency, daring us to ask questions to which we don’t really want the answers. To this day, fans and critics alike argue over what it all means, but all can agree it’s pretty bloody terrifying.

Mulholland Drive Justin Theroux

Among its many violent delights, Mulholland Drive boasts one of the most lethally effective jump scares in recent memory. It works precisely because Lynch waits a beat too long to give it to us. Even those unfamiliar with genre conventions will know to expect the payoff a bit sooner than we get it, and it’s only once the audience has settled back into their seats that the auteur – long established as a master of creating mercilessly unsettling unease – pulls the rug out from under us.

Indeed, the most upsetting element to this whole haunting ordeal is that it, along with many of the vignettes contained therein, doesn’t really figure into the rest of the story. The character may show up again, he may even be part of the unravelling mystery (depending on how one reads the movie) but, in spite of leaving an indelible mark on us as viewers, his participation is left unclear. It’s all part of the film’s hypnotic charm, tricking us into thinking we’re working it out when really the waters are being muddied further.

Critic and TV presenter Jonathan Ross suggested, in an interview with The Guardian, that Mulholland Drive is “a viewer-created film where you discover only what it means to you”. In this way, it could be taken as more or less disturbing depending on one’s predilection towards darker fare. If one watches a lot of horror movies and can spot the cues coming a mile away, a flick that presents itself as non-horror, which toys with those same traits, could therefore, arguably, hit significantly harder.

Mulholland Drive wigsConsidering it was originally envisioned as a television series, it’s worth noting that many of the layers intrinsic to the overwhelming sense of weirdness were likely going to be further developed than was possible over the course of a two hour plus film. But even so, Lynch isn’t one to over-explain, and in trying too hard to understand Mulholland Drive, we may be doing it a disservice. This is a film of feeling, of mood, and of overarching darkness. As Ebert suggested, there may not even be anything to it.

It’s also, ostensibly, about the evils of Hollywood and the poisoned chalice of success, particularly for women. It’s about the merits of sacrifice, the difficulties with trying our best but still coming up short. Although this is a theme that comes up again and again, it’s never more pertinent and horrifying than when seen through Lynch’s lens. Even if we take the idea that much of what happens in the movie isn’t really happening, it’s still a highly intoxicating, and hugely destructive, fever dream at its core.

The best horror movies leave us questioning everything once we’ve finished watching them; who’s behind the door, what’s lurking in the darkness, etc. Mulholland Drive goes one step further by causing us to question the very fabric of our existence, our reality. It’s no surprise the film was voted #1, or that it still promotes discussion fifteen years later. Defying categorisation (“drama, mystery, thriller” says IMDb – identical to Fincher’s Zodiac) and confounding our expectations at every turn, this is a movie with which we’ll never likely be finished.

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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