Take a deep breath and think of a nice calm river in the mountains, of machines softly whirring as they do their job exactly as they should, and of evergreen trees so big and full it looks like Christmas. Welcome to Twin Peaks, manufacturer of American dreams.
These images are the soothing pictures that open the show, only they don’t stay peaceful for long. Twin Peaks immediately introduces conflict before a scene even starts by the colors it uses in its opening credits. The words that flash across the screen, interrupting your view of a mountain range and river, are outlined in a neon green that clashes with the leafy forest greens. These outlined letters may as well be a flashing neon sign that says “turn back now.”
When the first scene begins, a beautiful woman in red lips looks at herself in the mirror as she gets ready in the morning. A white-haired man in red plaid gets ready to go fishing and touches his wife’s cheek before he leaves the house. On the edge of the picturesque setting where he sets off with his fishing pole is a bundle of white plastic. That pile of trash sticks out as much to this man as the neon green words in the title cards do to the viewer.
These visual cues add tension to Twin Peaks before any plot twist could. It’s signals like these that make it clear this isn’t going to be a carefree comedy, it’s going to be tense, weird, and full of contradictions.
After this man in the red coat sees that strange object on the shoreline, he drops his fishing gear and carefully walks toward it. The camera view shifts to his point of view as he rounds the corner and sees that the bundle of plastic is actually covering a dead body. This camera angle is markedly different from what has come before and makes it so the viewer isn’t just watching a character find a body, the viewer is actually the one who sees it first. Not only that, it zooms in—as if you lean in for a closer look.
By shifting to this point of view, Twin Peaks makes you feel like you are a part of this town and a part of this mystery. After all, you couldn’t walk away from finding a dead body, could you?
The camera only employs this point of view shot when it has to do with Laura Palmer, the murdered teenager who fuels the plot of the entire show. It makes her the center of your screen and the center of your mind.
When the sheriff comes to find the body he takes a long look—and the camera again shifts to a first person point of view. Everyone’s coats are buttoned up to their necks, including the two glamorous women looking on at the scene in oversized wool and fur coats. Everyone’s jackets are buttoned up because it’s cold, sure, but also because they are covering up things they hope stay hidden.
After Sheriff Harry S. Truman and Pete discover that the body is Laura Palmer, the show cuts to a woman calling for Laura. You already know that she won’t find her, so watching this woman walk through an empty house is painful and desperate. The camera shoots her from below as she runs up the stairs and across an empty floor, playing upon the horror of knowing what’s going to happen and not being able to look away. The angles formed by the staircase and banisters are crossing dynamically, creating more tension in the screen. For a moment, Laura’s mother walks off the screen entirely and the camera stays still on the empty house, echoing the silence she’s hearing in response to calling Laura’s name. As her mother enters Laura’s room, the camera again shifts to her point of view—because she’s looking for Laura—and pauses on an empty bed. Laura’s bed hasn’t been made—it’s as if she just got out of it. The bedspread has soft pink flowers that seem feminine and innocent. The romantic bedspread doesn’t match up with the image of a murdered girl wrapped up in hard, shiny plastic instead of soft cotton sheets.
Twin Peaks uses visual cues and contrasts like this throughout its run, and it’s what makes the show so rich and full of depth. Camera angles alone can elevate a scene so that the horror becomes almost unbearable to watch. When Laura’s mother, Sarah, can’t find Laura at home, she calls everyone she can think of to try to find where she is. She’s on the phone with her husband, Leland, when the sheriff comes to his work to tell him what happened to his daughter. A close up on Leland makes the pain in his face loom large. The camera zooms in on tragedy and isn’t afraid to look away. It filled the frame when Laura is found dead on the shore, when Leland finds out his daughter is dead, and again now when Laura’s mother starts screaming in pain as she overhears the news on the phone. A slow pan down the telephone cord that Leland drops reveals a hanging phone and Laura’s mother’s screams coming through the receiver loud and clear after Leland has walked away and there is no one on the other end to hear her.
It’s not just horror the show pulls off so well. One of my favorite jokes in the premier is when Audrey is introduced. The soundtrack plays a jaunty tune, and the camera pans down on a young girl in a soft pink sweater, plaid skirt, and saddle shoes walking to a chauffeured car. The camera takes a long pause on her shoes—which Audrey immediately changes when she gets to school. She throws those saddlebacks into her locker and replaces them with red pumps. Red heels belong to a troublemaking woman, not a teenage schoolgirl. Behind her locker, Laura’s best friends James and Donna talk about their day. Behind them, another student literally dances away from his locker, and behind him, a few cops walk into the school to investigate Laura’s death. Playfulness on Twin Peaks can only be paired with tragedy.
In another scene, Agent Dale Cooper and Sheriff Truman are in the morgue. They are in a windowless room standing over Laura’s body. The lights are flickering, as they so often do to set the tone in horror movies. “I have to apologize again for the fluorescent lights,” the medical examiner says. “I think it’s a bad transformer.”
Forget dreams, Twin Peaks is selling jokes mixed with waking nightmares.
Plot and characters can’t tell stories as rich as this on their own. In Twin Peaks, the set, camera, costumes, and editing all contribute to make a story that changed the way TV felt and looked, and the pilot managed to set the tone and build a world right away, with just a few key images.