Twin Peaks: 10 films that influenced David Lynch’s unforgettable series

Think you know the original Twin Peaks? How many of these movies that helped to inspire Lynch’s surreal vision have you seen?

Craig Williams
Updated:

Twin Peaks (1990-91; 2017)

Twin Peaks (1990-91; 2017)

From the paintings of Edward Hopper to the ideas of occultist Aleister Crowley, the cultural frames of reference for Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks are vast, but the most prevalent reference points are cinematic. Over the course of three seasons and a movie, Twin Peaks betrayed the influence of dozens of films, ranging from the potent melodramas of Douglas Sirk to the heady psychedelic freak-outs of Kenneth Anger. These are 10 of the many films that influenced the original series.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Director Maya Deren

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

With its recurring images of dreamlike symbols – keys, doors, knives – Maya Deren’s experimental 1943 short dictates much of the dream world of Twin Peaks, where some of the most important clues, ideas and exchanges take place. This is where Laura and Cooper meet, and much of the mystery revolves around interactions they have in dreams, recalling Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), in which the dream sequences (designed by Salvador Dalí) hold the key to the mystery. These are Jungian dream worlds, where dreamers share the same symbols and signifiers. This approach is rooted in psychoanalysis, and there are allusions to the psychoanalytic process throughout the show, such as Laura’s relationship with Dr Jacoby, and even in Cooper’s unanswered (and unheard?) memos to “Diane”.

Laura (1944)

Director Otto Preminger

Laura (1944)

Twin Peaks contains numerous references to Otto Preminger’s tricksy noir about a detective who falls for the woman whose murder he’s investigating, including the name of its central victim. In the world of Lynch and Frost, names are instruments of the uncanny; the show features characters named after a plane hijacker, a former US president and even famous ice cream entrepreneurs. The name Waldo Lydecker from Laura appears twice in the show – as both the name of a myna bird (Waldo) and the local veterinarian (Bob Lydecker).

But the parallels with the film run deeper than names. Portraits of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) are central visual cues in both film and programme. Each is defined by her absence, leaving their characters to be constructed through the recollections of those around them – projections of what others want them to be. This idea is especially potent in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and in the bravura final scenes of Laura.

Out of the Past (1947)

Director Jacques Tourneur

Out of the Past (1947)

Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), Out of the Past is a noir that takes place away from the urban sprawl typically associated with the genre. Like Robert Mitchum’s Jeff, Cooper is the isolated figure of Twin Peaks, in over his head in a small town, exiled from the rest of the country. Out of the Past, along with the original wave of American noir in the 1940s, reflected the postwar anxieties of the age. Lynch and Frost appropriated this idea to expose the rotten soul lying beneath the phony wholesomeness of Reagan-era America.

Director Jacques Tourneur’s influence on Lynch is incalculable, and many of his films are referenced in Twin Peaks, from Canyon Passage (1946) to Night of the Demon (1957). The former, a western that’s set, like Twin Peaks, in the Pacific Northwest, gives the sense that the area lies on the outer limits of the country, the psychological and topographical frontier – an idea that’s echoed throughout the series.

Orphée (1950)

Director Jean Cocteau

Orphée (1950)

Twin Peaks contains myriad mythological references, but the most pronounced influence is Jean Cocteau’s riff on the Greek myth of Orpheus, with Cooper cast as the eponymous hero, descending into the underworld to save Laura/Eurydice. Even the distinct chevron-patterned carpet in the Red Room comes from the film.

In Orphée, the portals are mirrors; in Twin Peaks, they’re mysterious gateways hidden in the woods. In the powerful final scene of Fire Walk with Me, Cooper stands protectively over Laura as an angel descends. It is the moment when Twin Peaks’ emotional narrative comes to the fore: it is the story of a lost girl and the man who would become her witness, her avenger, her Orpheus.

Peyton Place (1957)

Director Mark Robson

Peyton Place (1957)

With its fixation on the scandal, vice and hypocrisy lying beneath the manicured façade of small-town America, the bare bones of Twin Peaks can be found in Mark Robson’s adaptation of Grace Metalious’ sensationalist 1956 novel. During the show’s development stage, Lynch and Frost hosted a private screening of the film and, according to Lynch’s agent Tony Krantz: “It was off of that screening that they came up with this world.” The film even featured Russ Tamblyn, who would go on to play Dr Jacoby in the show.

The novel also spawned a soap opera, which ran from 1964 to 1969, and its impact is evident in both Invitation to Love, the soap that appears on TV sets throughout Twin Peaks, and in the show’s heightened sense of melodrama. Indeed, melodrama dominates the quotidian in Twin Peaks, running from rich Sirkian currents to the fringes of camp, like Mark Robson’s later film Valley of the Dolls (1967). Robson rose to prominence working under producer Val Lewton (another big influence on Lynch) and began his directing career with occult noir The Seventh Victim (1943), which is also alluded to in Twin Peaks.

Vertigo (1958)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

Twin Peaks includes several references to Vertigo, from Laura’s cousin Maddy Ferguson, who has the first name of Kim Novak’s character in the film and the surname of Jimmy Stewart’s, as well as the portraits of Laura and Carlotta. Identities are never fixed in the films of Hitchcock and Lynch, and the idea of the double recurs throughout their respective bodies of work. The notion reached its apex for Lynch in Twin Peaks, with its world of doppelgängers, double lives and dream avatars. There are even doubles in the show-within-a-show Invitation to Love (“Selena Swift as Emerald and Jade”).

The idea takes on another dimension with the involvement of Lynch and Frost’s family members in Twin Peaks: Lynch’s son (a dead ringer for his father) appears in the show, as do Lynch and Frost themselves. Lynch’s daughter Jennifer even wrote a spin-off book from the perspective of Laura Palmer.

Une femme est une femme (1961)

Director Jean-Luc Godard

Une femme est une femme (1961)

In Une femme est une femme, Jean-Luc Godard deconstructed the classical Hollywood musical by showing his audience the cogs at work. Elements of musicals appear throughout Lynch’s films, but, in Twin Peaks, his and Frost’s approach skewed towards the Godardian, with moments like Audrey dancing to the show’s score (“I love this music – isn’t it too dreamy…”) – a nod perhaps to Anna Karina dancing in the pool hall in Vivre sa vie (1962) – or Cooper noting the score as he arrives at One-Eyed Jack’s (“And there’s always music in the air.”).

Similarly, the emphasis on artifice created by the abrupt stops-and-starts and volume shifts is an idea lifted straight from the Godard playbook. In Twin Peaks, music is also a portal between the waking life and the dream state. After Cooper dreams of The Man from Another Place, he wakes still clicking in time to the song playing in his dream.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

Director Marlon Brando

One-eyed Jacks (1961)

“Isn’t that a western with Marlon Brando?” Donna asks in the first series, but in Twin Peaks, it’s also a brothel and casino “across the border on the Canadian side”. Like many westerns of the era, One-Eyed Jacks – Brando’s sole directorial effort – is a distinctly American reckoning; an act of retribution for a country built on violence. Twin Peaks appropriated this notion into the Lynchian milieu (the phrase “one-eyed jack” even appears as a crude sexual reference in Wild at Heart, the 1990 film that Lynch left Twin Peaks to direct). One-Eyed Jacks is a film caught between two sensibilities – the studio era and the New Hollywood – and there’s a distinct sense that, like Twin Peaks, it’s a work out of time.

Out 1 (1971)

Director Jacques Rivette

Out 1 (1971)

In the notes to its season of David Lynch and Jacques Rivette double bills in 2015, The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York described “the profound affinities and eerie correspondences between the dark, mystical visions” of the directors. These “affinities and correspondences” are surprisingly vast, from the idea of life as a performance and the fluidity of identity, to lost women and alternative dimensions. Both directors were also indebted to the dreamy gothic of Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Secret beyond the Door… (1947). Out 1, Rivette’s 13-hour masterpiece, is, like Twin Peaks, a mystery where the answer always feels just out of reach. Like the show, it also features a key scene involving reverse speech.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Director Robin Hardy

The Wicker Man (1973)

The psychogeographic elements of American horror often tend to focus on suburban landscapes, but Twin Peaks’ sense of evil lurking beneath the ground points to the English folk horror tradition. The debt to The Wicker Man, in which an outsider visits a remote community and gets in over his head, is clear, but the topographical horror of Robin Redbreast (1970) or the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas is equally evident in Twin Peaks’ sense of the rural macabre.

The evil in the show is in the forest, and imagery of wood and trees abound, from the Log Lady to the ring of trees leading to the Red Room. Shades of folk horror are present too in Frost’s 2016 novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks, in which he creates an alternative myth of the birth of America, much like Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) did for modern England.

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