MGM // 1986 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Shepherd (Retired) // June 26th, 2000
"It's a strange world, isn't it?"
Director David Lynch described this film as "The Hardy Boys go to Hell." That's a pretty fair assessment of this film. And it's also, in a surreal way, the best commercial ever made for Heineken beer. Or Pabst Blue Ribbon for that matter. And if you spend the requisite two hours watching this film, you'll need a beer ready about 1 1/4 hours into it when Dennis Hopper makes his preference known. And it definitely ain't Heineken!
So as you chill your brewskis, what's this movie about? A sequel to National Velvet? An old Bobby Vinton song? A Brief History of Fabric? Nope. This is a gritty film about the dichotomy of everyday life. You have your tranquil, suburban existence full of normal folk. And then you have your deranged, violent, and perverted neighbors who like to terrorize the others. Let's get to know both groups a bit better through the course of this unsettling but wonderful film.
Most of you know David Lynch through his semi-successful TV series, "Twin Peaks," which ran on ABC back in the early '90s. In 1986's Blue Velvet, you'll see a friendly face in the lead role (Kyle MacLachlan), and you'll recognize some Lynchian cohorts from earlier & later efforts, such as Laura Dern (Wild At Heart) and Jack Nance (Twin Peaks, Eraserhead). The setting of the film, Lumberton, is very similar to Twin Peaks...a small woodsy, town associated with the logging industry. Instead of Laura Palmer's dad, we have resident madman/drug dealer/sexual deviant Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) as the bad guy. And in the middle is a lounge singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), being used as a sexual pawn by Frank, who has kidnapped her son & husband in order to keep her under his bizarre control.
The movie begins with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returning home to Lumberton from college to assist his family after his father has a stroke and is hospitalized. Director Lynch starts the movie off with a splash of vivid colors in a dreamlike, idealized suburban opening sequence which looks especially good on DVD. The song "Blue Velvet" is used throughout the movie as a theme, and is first heard here at the opening scene, which is later repeated as a "bookend" sequence at the end. In typical Lynch fashion, the camera moves from the lush & beautiful opening into a disturbing scene where Jeffrey's father has his heart attack while watering the lawn. We see him fall to the ground, still holding the hose, from which a small dog starts lapping in a slo-mo sequence, adding humor to the tragedy. The camera then moves into the depths of the newly watered lawn, peeking at a hidden underworld of bugs, dirt, and decay-symbolic of the nasty, hidden world we're about to enter with Jeffrey as he encounters the twisted Frank Booth and his gang of ne'er-do-wells.
While walking home from the hospital, Jeffrey discovers a severed human ear in the thick grass of a field. He brings it to the police, where he meets his neighbor, Detective Williams, and later visits him at home to find out more about his gruesome discovery. Jeffrey is told to keep quiet about the ear & then he meets the detective's pretty high school senior daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), on his way out of the house. She tips Jeffrey about an ongoing investigation into a woman singer who lives in an apartment building near the field where the ear was found. Soon, Jeffrey and Sandy are conspiring to investigate the woman singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) by having Jeffrey pretend to be a bug exterminator & sneak into her apartment to have a look around.
Jeffrey borrows a bug sprayer from his father's hardware store and convinces Dorothy to let him in to spray the kitchen. While in her apartment, Jeffrey steals a spare key with which to enter later. Sandy & Jeffrey go that night to the nightclub where Dorothy performs as "The Blue Lady" complete with a blue velvet dress. "Blue Velvet" is heard again as Dorothy sings her trademark song and Jeffrey and Sandy enjoy a few rounds of Heineken (they MUST have slipped Lynch a few bucks for this killer product placement!). The couple leaves early so that Jeffrey can sneak back into Dorothy's apartment with the stolen key while Sandy stands watch in the car outside the building. Sandy first admonishes Jeffrey with the classy line, "I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert." Jeffrey playfully replies, "Well, that's for me to know and you to find out."
Once inside the apartment, Jeffrey searches for evidence, stopping to expel the Heinekens he had earlier tossed back. Unfortunately, this is exactly when Sandy honks the car horn to warn Jeffrey of the singer's return, only to be drowned out by the sound of the flushing toilet (reproduced in digital perfection thanks to the booming Dolby Digital Surround on the DVD). Jeffrey quickly hides inside a closet, from which he observes Dorothy disrobe and then reach for a blue velvet robe inside the closet as he recoils in fear of discovery. Dorothy has sensed his presence and grabs a large kitchen knife, forcing him from the closet and cutting his cheek, as she demands to know why he is watching her. She then humiliates Jeffrey by forcing him to strip in front of her, only to be interrupted by a loud knocking at the door.
Dorothy is filled with fear and tells Jeffrey to hide in the closet again, as Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) noisily enters the apartment. Frank begins to humiliate Dorothy with profanities and threats, hitting her and making her bow to his twisted will. (This part of the movie is truly uncomfortable to watch as Hopper pulls out all the stops to create one of the most disgusting and terrifying screen baddies in a long time.) In an extended scene, he violates Dorothy while inhaling some type of gas from a portable tank and alternately submitting to and dominating her. Jeffrey watches in horror as the sick scene plays out and Frank leaves, warning Dorothy to "Stay alive baby. Do it for Van Gogh." Jeffrey realizes that Frank is referring to Dorothy's husband whom Frank has kidnapped, from the reference to the severed ear he had found. It is even worse than that, as Jeffery learns that Dorothy's small son is also Frank's prisoner, and Dorothy has been forced to become the sexual slave of the violent and sadomasochistic Frank Booth in order to keep them alive.
Well, folks, this is where the movie really takes off, and so do I. If you want to read a complete review with more spoilers, then look elsewhere. This is one of my favorite movies of the '80s, and I urge you to rent if not buy the DVD. You'll get to see the blossoming romance between Jeffrey and Sandy, not to mention Jeffrey and Dorothy, and you'll be seeing a whole lot of Isabella Rossellini in the process. You'll howl in laughter as Hopper his gang visit a truly creepy house of ill repute, with Dean Stockwell in drag and performing a lip sync to Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." ("Quantum Leap" fans, this one's for you...) You'll recoil in horror as Hopper cranks the lunatic meter up a notch when Jeffrey punches Frank Booth and faces the violent consequences. And you'll never forget the classic exchange between Frank and Jeffrey regarding Frank's preference for Pabst Blue Ribbon over Heineken.
The movie is a post-modern classic, and Lynch was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for his efforts. It was placed on many Critics' Best Of Lists for 1986, and deservedly so. Dennis Hopper's comeback performances in this film, coupled with the wonderful movie "Hoosiers," refueled the kinetic actor's career and are probably his two best film performances outside of "Easy Rider." My only gripe with the DVD is the lack of a commentary track by Lynch and some of the actors. Given the cryptic and admittedly goofy nature of David Lynch, this is probably understandable, as I don't think that he would be able to refrain from long periods of silence during such a commentary. He is an intriguing person, after seeing him on talk shows, but an extended commentary would probably end up frustrating rather than satisfying the audience. Still, it would be nice to see more on the DVD than just the original trailer for this complex film. And call me a stickler, but if you're going to have French & Spanish subtitles, why not have them in English as well? The short booklet that comes with the DVD is unusually informative, touching upon some good quotes from the director & cast about the themes of the movie. Believe it or not, there are several references to "The Wizard of Oz" and "It's A Wonderful Life" amidst all the strange goings on in Lumberton, USA. Some people will find parts of it difficult to watch, as Lynch no doubt intended, as he contrasts the best things in life with some of its more unpleasant elements, and I think it is a powerful viewing experience that can even be hilarious at some points, much like real life.
Blue Velvet is the thoughtful and controversial work of several creative people at the top of their game. David Lynch has masterfully directed a film that is both compelling and repulsive at times. Dennis Hopper brought to life the evil and sadistic Frank Booth without going over the top, as top-notch actors portraying screen villains often do. Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern make an engaging pair of would-be detectives and believably naïve counterpoints to all the darker elements of the film. And then there's the wonderfully lush cinematography of Frederick Elmes coupled with the atmospheric soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti that both shine on the DVD.
Blue Velvet receives high praise as a thought-provoking film with great visual flair, a willingness to be controversial during the ultra-conservative Reagan '80s, and performances that will stay with you for a long time. MGM is to be applauded in bringing this David Lynch classic to DVD, and perhaps one day we'll see a director/cast commentary added to it, one would hope. Let's toast all involved with a cold Heineken...sorry, Frank...a cold PBR!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Collectible DVD Booklet
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Interactive Menus
* Scene Access