Director Jennifer Lynch uses the word 'brave' a lot, which is understandable. To be a woman working in the male-dominated horror and thriller genres is hard enough, but to have survived her many personal and professional disasters – and to keep making films despite admitting to sometimes working as a waitress and cleaner to pay the bills – no doubt requires courage.
I do not want to make David Lynch films. I want to make Jen Lynch films.
Brave is also a word you may want to consider before watching Lynch's latest film, the grimly compelling Chained. Vincent D'Onofrio stars as a taxi driver who holds a boy hostage for 10 years, enlisting him in the task of cleaning up after the rapes and brutal murders of multiple women. As the boy grows to maturity (played with pasty-faced intensity by Australian actor Eamon Farren), he's pressured to participate more fully in the grisly work. As Lynch said in an interview after the film's March screening at the Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival in Hobart, “Chained is a story about real life monsters, and how they get made.”
Sometimes hard to watch – especially in the claustrophobic s cenes involving cruelty to a child – Chained is not 'torture porn', according to Lynch. “Torture porn has its place and there's an audience for it. I'm just not the director for it. I was more interested in the building of a monster, and where that damage comes from, so you can humanise and explain – though not justify – the devastating behaviour that is a serial killer. I mean, I love blood and gore and putting lamb intestines on people! But it's got to be about the story.”
As the eldest daughter of the great American filmmaker, musician and artist David Lynch, Jennifer was born with club feet and underwent multiple corrective surgeries as an infant, a fact credited as one of the inspirations for David Lynch's surreal body horror masterpiece Eraserhead. Intriguingly, Eraserhead and Chained have been programmed together in a double bill at Canberra's Arc Cinema on 13 April as part of its cult film series. Asked how she feels about having her work programmed and discussed in relation to her father's, Jennifer says she's at peace with it and that it feels “comfortable”.
“It is only ever the strange comparisons and judgments that have confused both of us. We feel so vastly different from each other workwise. Certainly there is a like-mindedness to the process and joy of exploration, but I do not want to make David Lynch films. I want to make Jen Lynch films.”
Creative and artistic as a child, Jennifer followed in her father's footsteps, working on his films, writing The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer that was the spin-off novel from television series Twin Peaks, and writing and directing her own feature debut, Boxing Helena (1993). The critical response to that dark fairytale about a surgeon who keeps a woman captive by amputating her limbs was so vitriolic and personal that it took the then-24-year-old Jennifer 15 years to make another film. In those years she became a single mother, detoxed, survived a near fatal car accident, and endured three painful spinal surgeries. Finally, in 2008, Surveillance emerged – a stylish, playful and twisted serial killer thriller set in Nebraska, starring Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond as FBI agents investigating a spree of senseless murders. Surveillance premiered in a midnight slot at Cannes, and went on to garner numerous nominations and awards – the culmination of a filmmaking journey that Lynch describes as “pretty much perfect”.
But it wasn't long before Lynch was again struggling to find employment, after the disastrous experience of losing control of her subsequent film, the India-set Hollywood-Bollywood romance horror fantasy Hisss. This was an experience documented with candour, humour and insight in Australian filmmaker Penny Vozniak's behind-the-scenes documentary Despite the Gods (2012). This doco opened the Stranger With My Face Film Festival in Hobart on 8 March, and Jennifer Lynch was the special guest at the festival, now in its second year, which celebrates women working within the horror genre.
As festival co-director Briony Kidd says, “Jennifer knows what it's like to struggle in the film industry and yet she's managed to maintain a positive, optimistic outlook, and that's inspiring. She's had a fascinating career to date and her work is so strong and original. It shows how the horror genre can be about more than what's obvious, more than just the surface story. For example, Chained explores fundamental ideas about good and evil and the most extreme of moral dilemmas.”
Sadly, despite being critically well-received for its psychological complexity, powerhouse performances and moody aesthetic (even more impressive for being made in 15 days on a shoestring budget of $US700,000), Chained has never been theatrically released in the U.S., a fact attributed to its initial NC-17 rating.
“I protested and basically went to the MPAA and paid for arbitration,” Lynch says. “I said to them, have you seen Saw, Hostile? Texas Chainsaw Massacre? I don't understand why I'm getting basically an 'X'. They said they loved the film but they didn't think children should see it, because it just felt too real. Apparently, it's okay for teenagers to see girls getting their breasts chopped off and their heads lopped off if it's funny and slick and sexy, but it's not okay for them to see what real violence is and how hideously quiet and clumsy and haphazard it can be. It's not okay for them to see how frightening it is so they can have a real conversation about it.”
Eventually, Chained was re-edited and received an MA15+ rating, but it was too late. “It went straight to DVD and the only time I've ever seen it projected large is at festivals like this.”
Speaking of 'festivals like this', does Lynch mind having to discuss her work in relation to her gender? “I don't go up to another film director and say, 'Boy, you are a great male film director.' So what's curious to me is why it's so gender specific with me. I get a lot of questions about 'how could you make a film with this kind of subject matter?' How could you do this as a woman and a mother?' My answer: women can be terrible! Have you ever been to high school? Girls have as much love in them as they have viciousness because they're human beings. Violence and horror films are not gender specific.”
Eraserhead and Chained screen together in a double bill at Canberra's Arc Cinema on 13 April as part of the 'Cult of Arc' series. More info here.