David Lynch has always enjoyed dragging pop music into his cesspools of sinister weirdness. There’s “In Heaven” in Eraserhead, “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet, “Love Me Tender” in Wild at Heart, “Llorando” in Mulholland Drive—you get the idea. So I really shouldn’t have been surprised when, in the middle of Lynch’s most recent feature INLAND EMPIRE (2006), a gang of maybe-prostitutes started dancing to Little Eva’s recording of “The Loco-Motion.”
And of course, this is David Lynch we’re talking about, so it’s not just an impromptu dance number. Anything but. The dancers’ brassy enthusiasm for the dance makes it kind of funny, but any comedy is drowned out by the aura of vague menace: it’s in the dazed look of horror on Laura Dern’s face as she watches; the abrasively flashing lights; and the nearly subliminal intrusion of hushed industrial noise onto the soundtrack.
INLAND EMPIRE is in many ways a surrealist horror movie, and a creeping horror infects this carefree dance. Like at the end, when all the dancers vanish into thin air, leaving behind an empty, blandly decorated room and a world-weary Laura Dern. (They’ll be back, of course, to persecute her and to share long, stilted conversations about sex.) It’s never overtly scary, but it is uncanny and off-putting. It’s mesmerizing in its frightful ambiguity, as if an unstated riddle was lurking inside the choreography.
This is one reason why David Lynch is a genius, and why his movies crawl under my skin: he doesn’t just set up polarities. This scene isn’t just a juxtaposition of a benevolent song with malevolent visuals. It’s a diabolical imbrication of song, dancer, dance—every aspect of the soundtrack and mise-en-scène, and all their associated value sets. Nothing’s solely trustworthy, and nothing’s solely evil. Everything is tentative. Everything’s kind of silly.
(For what it’s worth, INLAND EMPIRE also contains one of the scariest images I’ve ever seen.)