A man named Fred (Bill Pullman) is approached at a party by a stranger in a black suit and eerie white make-up (Robert Blake). The stranger insists they have met before, in Fred’s house – something that Fred denies. ‘As a matter of fact,’ says the mystery man, ‘I’m there right now.’
‘What do you mean,’ asks Fred, ‘you’re where right now?’
‘At your house,’ confirms the stranger, handing Fred a mobile telephone so he can call and check. Fred does call, and the man is telling the truth.
Lost Highway is, to my mind, one of the most effective and unsettling horror films of the 1990s – not that it is widely considered a horror film at all. Ostensibly it presents itself as a stylish neo-noir, co-written and directed by American arthouse favourite David Lynch. Certainly it ticks all of the key boxes of the noir genre, but it also takes several steps further into the unexplained. Its story is a paradox, structured into an odd form where it cannot logically take place. Its events are wildly unpredictable, and often-times confusing, and Lynch maddeningly refuses to clarify any of it. Fear, at its basest level, usually works out as a fear of the unknown. Lost Highway feels both unknown and wonderfully unknowable.
Bill Pullman plays Fred, a jazz saxophonist with a growing suspicion that his wife (Patricia Arquette) is having an affair. When they start receiving anonymous videotapes featuring recordings of their own home, he also suspects he is being stalked. It is a sharp contrast to Pullman’s usual performances, twisting his common ‘everyperson’ role into something that is increasingly dark and lean – even threatening to watch. He is a regularly under-utilised actor, so it is delightful to see Lynch give himself something properly interesting with which to work. Arquette delivers what must be close to career-best work, in a dual role of Fred’s wife Renee as well as a gangster’s mysterious girlfriend Alice. Both characters feel sharply distinct from one another.
An abrupt shift partway through the film introduces audiences to Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young motor mechanic drawn towards Alice while risking the ire of her violent boyfriend Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia). Getty brings a well-placed naivete to his role, which falls very neatly into the standard trope for a noir’s male lead. Performances in the film are strong across the board – including a number of small cameos and bit parts from the likes of Jack Nance, Gary Busey, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Richard Pryor (his final on-screen role).
Music producer Trent Reznor populates the film’s soundtrack with a combination of Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Rammstein, and other contemporary rock acts, while Angelo Badalamenti provides the score. Together they create a much harsher, darker sound that is typical of Lynch’s previous films: they contribute to a film that has a sharper edge than its predecessors.
In terms of tone, aesthetic, and atmosphere Lost Highway is a masterpiece. Tension is coiled tightly to such a wonderful degree that the corner of a room can become terrifying. Senses of unease and menace are soaked into every scene. It is genuinely disturbing in places, adding up to an overall frightening experience that tops close to every horror work of its decade. Plenty of films can startle their audience with jump-scares and suspense; Lost Highway doesn’t bother to scare – it terrifies.