One Of The Scariest Scenes In Mulholland Drive Wants To Go Behind Winkie's

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Chris Evangelista and Matt Donato. In this edition, Chris wants you to follow him to the dumpster behind Winkie's).

"Mulholland Drive" marked something of a turning point for David Lynch. Lynch had been working for years by the time the film arrived in 2001, but his twisty, dreamy, haunting Hollywood noir was the first to earn him near-universal critical praise. Lynch also took home the Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director Award) at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, and garnered a Best Director nomination at the Oscars. 

It's strange that this was the film that became one of Lynch's most popular, because in the grand scheme of things, "Mulholland Drive" isn't that dissimilar from what the filmmaker had done before. But it is, perhaps, his most polished film; and perhaps his most entrancing. I haven't come here to discuss the ins and outs of the film or try to break down its many layers. I will say, though, that whatever some may say, "Mulholland Drive" is a horror movie. In fact, all of Lynch's movies, with the exception of the lovely "The Straight Story," could easily classify as horror. And "Mulholland Drive" features his scariest scene. 

The setup

Set in Hollywood, "Mulholland Drive" sandwiches together two very different stories with the same players. In the first half of the film, Hollywood hopeful Betty (Naomi Watts, in a star-making turn) comes to Tinseltown hoping to become a star! While there, she encounters a mysterious woman with amnesia, played by Laura Elena Harring. The woman decides to call herself Rita, and she and Betty set out to find out who she really is and how she lost her memories. Sort of. The second half of the film introduces us to Diane, also played by Watts. Unlike Betty, who is bright and bubbly, Diane is miserable and angry. She's a struggling actress, and she's coming off a romantic affair with another, and more successful, actress, Camilla Rhodes (also played by Harring). Throw in a cowboy, a mysterious man in a strange room, two bizarre movie producers, and Justin Theroux, and baby, you've got a stew going!

The story so far

"Mulholland Drive" is primarily focused on the Betty and Rita story, but from time to time, other characters will appear. These characters seemingly have no connection to the main plot — or maybe they do. Time reveals all! Unless it doesn't! The scene in question here is seemingly random and unconnected to what's going on with Betty and Rita. It involves two men, Dan and Herb, meeting at Winkie's a diner-like restaurant that's clearly molded on Denny's.

The scene

Dan (Patrick Fischler) and Herb (Michael Cooke) are sitting in Winkie's on a bright sunny day. Dan has asked Herb to come here, and Herb wants to know why. Dan looks noticeably nervous and confesses he had a dream about this place. In fact, he's had the dream twice. "I'm in here, but it's not day or night," Dan says. "It's kind of half-night, you know? But it looks just like this ... except for the light. And ... I'm scared like I can't tell you." Dan goes on to add that Herb is in the dream, too. But the horror in the dream comes from Dan's knowledge that there's someone out back, behind the building, near the dumpster. "He's the one who's doing it," Dan says. Doing what, exactly? Dan isn't clear, but adds: "I can see him through the wall. I can see his face. I hope that I never see that face, ever, outside of a dream."

The entire time this story unfolds, Lynch keeps things off-kilter by both cutting back and forth to Dan and Herb as they sit in a booth, and also by having the camera floating disjointedly over their shoulders. It never sits still; it just kind of weaves about, as if the camera were the weight of a feather and it's caught in a breeze. Herb quickly deduces that Dan wants to go around back and see if the mysterious figure with the horrifying face is really back there, as if to face his fears once and for all. And Dan agrees, but it's clear he's petrified. And as Dan and Herb walk around back, the tension only grows. Again: it's bright daylight as this happens, but the movements of the two men to the back of the building, coupled with Fischler's believably horrified performance, create a prevailing sense of menace that can't be shaken.

In a more by-the-numbers horror movie, this scene would probably end with Dan and Herb finding nothing back there, and continue on with the characters from there. Instead, Lynch has Dan's dream turn out to be very real — a hideous figure that doesn't even look human quickly steps out from behind the building, causing Dan to understandably faint from sheer terror. What does it all mean? I promise, there's a genuine meaning behind this scene — one that unlocks the movie's strange narratives. But Lynch, as is his fashion, doesn't hold our hands and walk us through it. Instead, he leaves us confused and afraid, wondering what the hell is going to happen next.

The impact (Matt's take)

Surrealism is a key to David Lynch's filmmaking, on display in this "Mulholland Drive" scene. Chris already mentioned how the camera floats in a dreamlike state, removing the regulations of reality. There's an unease to a diner conversation about nightmares in which Dan foreshadows his own torment. It's never outright structured like a horror sequence, yet it's horror that Lynch delivers. Seeing is no longer believing as Lynch becomes a great manipulator.

The scare of the dirty-faced figure that pops from behind the Winkie's dumpster might be considered pedestrian in practice. Dan approaches the dumpster and out pops a manifestation of grime — yet Dan still faints. We balk at the discovery. There's an unease already clouding our judgment before Dan's tormentor reaveals itself outside Dan's dreams. When it emerges, Lynch reminds his audiences that anything is possible in "Mulholland Drive" and that's when the terror tingles up your spine. If Dan's nightmares can become encounterable, what else awaits?

It's not about a slasher killer plunging its knife or a monster biting into another snack. Dan's recognition of the fragile state between reality and nightmare dares us to predict more tricks of imagination. Lynch isn't necessarily trying to scare us still with the Winkies creature, merely wanting to knock our perception off-kilter so that it never recalibrates until after "Mulholland Drive." Mission accomplished.