After three wildly different feature films—Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Dune—David Lynch had already carved a unique cinematic niche for himself. But 1986’s Blue Velvet fully established his personal style and what people think of most when they think of Lynch’s work. Obviously, Blue Velvet led to Twin Peaks, an influential TV series way ahead of its time. And while there’s certainly a case that Peaks is responsible for many shows to come after, on the movie’s 35th anniversary, I’d actually argue it’s Blue Velvet that gave us the dark prestige television we’re seeing in recent years.
If we can boil down Lynch’s take on crime and mystery fiction to its most basic, it’s this: a seemingly normal, often All-American person/town experiences true darkness in the form of nigh-demonic criminals and ghastly, grisly crimes. The wholesomeness of the “Good People” comes under attack, and it’s up to that regular person and/or a trustworthy law enforcement agent to solve the mystery and destroy the evil, restoring the good.
This may as well be the premise of every piece of narrative media, really. Blue Velvet certainly isn’t the first movie to have such a story, but it’s through Lynch’s particular perspective that the divide between good and evil becomes especially pronounced.
The movie follows Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a clean-cut college kid back in his white picket-fenced town following his father’s bizarre injury. While mindlessly throwing rocks in a field, he happens upon a severed human ear. This small discovery sends him down the path to an underworld that both intrigues and repulses him. He eventually uncovers a kidnapping plot involving a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and a terrifyingly unhinged gangster named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
There’s a sense throughout Blue Velvet that Jeffrey deep down knows he has no business investigating anything, but he finds it fun, he needs to feel the thrill. It’s a way for him to both connect to his attractive, super innocent neighbor (Laura Dern), and White Knight-it-up for Dorothy, whose trauma Jeffrey feels he needs to avenge. Or maybe he just sees a sexy woman and can play bad boy for a little while.
This kind of character, the amateur detective embarking on a harrowing journey into the depths of depravity, is ubiquitous in serial crime shows at the moment. They’re essentially tourists eager to experience a taste of the dark side, unaware of how dark that side is. Shows like The Flight Attendant, Home Before Dark, Netflix’s show Dark, and Truth Be Told all focus on people who shouldn’t get involved, and yet do, because “the truth” is too enticing to ignore.
In watching Blue Velvet today, we feel the tourist aspect of Jeffrey in our real-life obsession with true crime. Those documentary series are everywhere nowadays and scripted series based on true crime are becoming streaming’s answer to procedural police dramas. For as fun as it is, Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building essentially features three Jeffrey Beaumonts, attempting to solve a twisty mystery in order to make it big in podcasting. If Blue Velvet came out today, you can bet Jeffrey would be a podcaster. He’d at least have a blog.
On the flipside of Jeffrey, and the aspect of Blue Velvet we see all over streaming and cable TV, is Frank Booth. In the movie, Frank is the physical embodiment of the criminal underbelly; he’s deranged, unpredictable, excessively violent, and undeniably magnetic. This isn’t the roughish charmer who happens to be on the other side of the law; Frank is a vile, snarling manifestation of the evils of mankind. And God, isn’t he just so fun to watch.
The idea of the criminal as Devil Incarnate is part and parcel to TV drama. These characters (usually men) have to be at once beastly and grandiose, popping off lengthy monologues in between sadistic acts of violence. True Detective‘s first season was all about searching for a monster in man form; Tuco on Breaking Bad, the Purple Man in Jessica Jones, Negan on The Walking Dead, or King Joffrey on Game of Thrones all fit this bill. Frank is a nightmare come to life, but Blue Velvet doesn’t work without him.
While Twin Peaks and some of Lynch’s later films would blend in the supernatural and metaphysical into this formula, Blue Velvet‘s power comes from just how everyday evil can infect and decay the people around it. By turning Frank up to 11, Lynch and Hopper created one of the scariest characters in cinema history; by keeping that intensity and dialing back the froth to maybe eight or nine, TV shows can mine psychopathy for seasons upon seasons.
What surprises me most is that it took TV this long to catch up to what Lynch was doing 35 years ago. There’s a Frank in every crime show, a Jeffrey in every other mystery. He prefigured the true crime obsession and the desire to mine the darkest reaches of humanity. That earned Lynch an Oscar nomination at the time; today, that shit wins 50 Emmys over 8 seasons.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!