The True Crime Legacy of Lost Highway ‹ Storyva – True Crime Story

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In a pivotal scene from David Lynch’s baroque opus Inland Empire (2006), the director of the film-within-a-film reveals a disturbing bit of trivia about the project to his lead actors: the script from which they’re working is, in fact, a remake of an previously unfinished picture, the original production of which was halted after the original leads “discovered something inside the story” and were subsequently murdered. According to rumor, the story, and by extension, the film itself, is cursed.

When it comes to discussing his own work, Lynch has always been one of our cagiest directors. It would therefore be wrong to conclude that this scene was directly inspired by own film of nine years prior, Lost Highway, but given all that happened following the production and release of that picture—including the involvement of three cast members in real-life murder cases—it’s hard not to make such a connection.

Twenty-five years on from its initial theatrical run, Lost Highway remains one of, if not the most disturbing movie David Lynch has ever made, not only for what he put in front of the camera, but for what all occurred beyond it.

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Lost Highway begins as a straightforward—if unmistakably Lynchian—thriller about an unhappily married couple menaced by an unseen stalker. Successful jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his bombshell wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) begin receiving menacing video tape recordings taken both outside and from within their home in the Hollywood Hills. At a party thrown by a sleazy friend of Renee’s, Fred encounters a ghoulish and sinister figure referred to in the script only as The Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who claims to have met Fred once before. Following this foreboding, supernaturally charged scene, the temporal landscape of the film shifts, and we discover a blood-drenched Fred kneeling over the mangled body of Renee.

Fred is quickly tried and convicted for Renee’s murder and sent to death row, and it’s here that Lynch truly goes all in on the narrative splintering that would come to define his output moving forward (including 2001’s Mulholland Drive, which feels like a sister film to Lost Highway, as well as Inland Empire). Fred undergoes a gruesome physical and psychic metamorphosis, transforming into a young auto mechanic named Pete (Balthazar Getty). Released from prison, Pete attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding his—as Lynch would go on to describe it—”psychogenic fugue”, while simultaneously indulging in a dangerous and doomed love affair with Alice, a beautiful gangster’s moll who happens to be a doppelganger for the deceased Renee (Arquette plays both roles).

As one riddle unfurls into another and the bodies start to pile, the various players and threads converge on the great American lost highway, a liminal zone that, by the end of the movie, loops into an infernal mobius strip from which there is no escape.

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Coming as it did in 1997, only two years after the arrest, trial and acquittal of O.J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her acquaintance Ron Goldman, many were quick to point out the similarities between Lost Highway’s plot and the Simpson saga. Despite Lynch’s famous reticence to talk about the underlying meaning of his work, he’s always been surprisingly forthright about Lost Highway. In his 2007 book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, Lynch wrote:

“At the time Barry Gifford and I were writing the script for Lost Highway, I was sort of obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial. Barry and I never talked about it this way, but I think the film is somehow related to that…What struck me about O.J. Simpson was that he was able to smile and laugh. He was able to go golfing with seemingly very few problems about the whole thing. I wondered how, if a person did these deeds, he could go on living. And we found this great psychology term—’psychogenic fugue’—describing an event where the mind tricks itself to escape some horror. So, in a way, Lost Highway is about that. And the fact that nothing can stay hidden forever.”

Incredibly, Lynch’s analysis of the Simpson case would apply to none other than Lost Highway star Robert Blake, who, in portraying The Mystery Man, helped craft one of the most haunting and memorable scenes in Lynch’s entire oeuvre and who, five years later, would be accused of murdering his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley.

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On the night of May 4, 2001, Bakley was shot to death while waiting in her car following a dinner with Blake at Vitello’s Italian Restaurant in Studio City, California. Blake denied any responsibility for the crime—his defense, remarkably, was that he couldn’t have personally shot his wife, as he’d gone back inside Vitello’s to retrieve a pistol he’d left behind—but authorities charged him with contracting Bakley’s murder out to his longtime bodyguard Earle Caldwell, with help from a retired stuntman named Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton.

If the Blake story didn’t match Simpson’s in terms of culture shock or political relevance, it nonetheless followed a near exact trajectory: Blake was arrested and charged with first degree murder, was imprisoned for nearly a year while awaiting trial, and was ultimately acquitted thanks mostly to the prosecution’s bungling of the case. Like Simpson, Blake would be taken to civil court by the family of the deceased, found liable for her death there and ordered to pay millions in compensation. Unlike Simpson, the 88-year-old Blake has mostly kept out of the public eye in years since, with Lost Highway standing as his final acting role as of the time of this writing.

At the time all of this went down, Blake was regarded as a washed-up has-been. His ‘70s heyday long past him, his indelible turn in Lost Highway—and make no mistake, he steals the movie—failed to kick off the comeback he’d hoped for. Although his career stretched back to the late ‘30s, where he’d started out as a child actor before going on to rack up 163 credits, including his lead performance in the hit television series Baretta (1975-78), after the death of his wife, Blake became synonymous with the handful of movies in which he played a killer, including his turns as real-life murderers Perry Smith in the 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote’s true crime classic In Cold Blood and John List in the 1993 made-for-TV movie Judgment Day: The John List story, as well as The Mystery Man in Lost Highway.

The media may have exploited Blake’s work as an actor to draw the public to the conclusion that best suited their desired narrative, but there’s no denying the eerie resonance those roles took on in the aftermath of Bakley’s murder. This is especially true of Lost Highway. It’s not simply that Blake co-starred in a movie about a showbiz figure who kills his wife—which also includes a scene wherein his character describes an assassination that bears a marked resemblance to Bakley’s—so much as the nature of his character that gives things an extra, frightening dimension.

The Mystery Man: a classic Lynch villain, a phantom whose true nature is too slippery to peg him as a simple ghost, demon, or figment of the imagination. Nor can he be read as a straightforward metaphor for any larger socio-political evil or psycho-emotional condition. The Mystery Man is no more the physical embodiment of patriarchal violence than he is Satan himself, yet a very reasonable reading, one backed by the text of the film itself, would suggest that he is, at least on one level, a tulpa summoned forth by Fred’s murderous urges towards his wife. As he tells Fred during his introductory scene: “You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I’m not invited.”

This isn’t to suggest that the role of The Mystery Man served the same purpose for Blake in real life, but only to acknowledge how impossible it is to not at least contemplate such a possibility when watching Lost Highway today.

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Regardless of anyone’s opinion about Blake’s guilt or innocence, the fact is he was still cleared of murder in a criminal court. The same can’t be said of the late Louis Eppolito, who, nine years before his conviction, alongside his longtime partner in the NYPD, Stephen Caracappa, for numerous grave criminal acts—including at least five high profile murders-for-hire committed on behalf of the Gambino crime family throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s—gave a small, but memorable performance as Detective Ed in Lost Highway.

If Eppolito isn’t as famous as Blake, it’s not for lack of trying. Like any number of ex-cops and gangsters, Eppolito craved the spotlight. He managed to finagle his way into show business after impressing none other than Joe Pesci with his gritty CV, riding this connection into a side hustle as a bit part actor. Between 1986 and 2005, Eppolito appeared in over a dozen feature films, including Goodfellas, State of Grace and, eventually, Lost Highway.

Eppolito, who always portrayed either a mafioso or a cop, served as little more than an extra in most of the movies he popped up in, although in Lost Highway he gets a slightly more prominent role. Working closely alongside the late, great character actor John Roselius, he plays one half of a pair of flatfeet assigned to investigate the initial break-in at the Madison home, before eventually nailing Fred for Renee’s homicide and pursuing him during his climactic flight from justice. With his stone-faced reactions, unpolished line readings and lumbering physique, Eppolito cuts a perfectly Lynchian figure, ridiculous but also undeniably intimidating. How many of his real-life acquaintances must have held him in the same regard, especially those who wound up becoming his victims.

That Eppolito should have appeared in a number of gangster dramas makes sense, given how much film directors working within the genre seek to give their films a sense of authenticity. But even though gangsters frequently appear throughout Lynch’s work, he’s never put an emphasis on real-world verisimilitude. Thus, the fact that Eppolito he should appear in a Lynch film at all—and particularly this Lynch film—makes Lost Highway all the uncannier.

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At its core, Lost Highway is about the many ways in which men attempt to violently possess women. Along with the reckoning Fred faces over his act of uxoricide, there is also a plotline involving a psychotic gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) who runs a sex trafficking operation. In a post-MeToo era, it’s impossible to watch the already incredibly upsetting scenes in which Arquette’s character is forced, at gunpoint, to commit sexual acts for Mr. Eddy during a casting session without thinking of reprehensible figures like Jeffery Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. (This is especially true of the latter, given that Arquette’s sister Rosanna was one of the first victims to bravely speak out against him.)

This facet of the movie becomes even more queasy when watched today, thanks of two cameos by rock stars and bandmates Marylin Manson and Twiggy Ramirez who, along with providing a song to the film’s hit soundtrack, also act in the film, appearing in a snuff sequence alongside Arquette’s character. That both men would later be accused of various acts of sexual misconduct, including rape and domestic abuse, adds yet one more disturbing layer to the proceedings, as well as bolstering Lost Highway aura as a work of hyperstition.

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Not every member of Lost Highway’s cast with a connection to a true crime case was an alleged perpetrator. The film also features a few notable victims, including Natasha Gregson Wagner, who plays the sweetly innocent girlfriend of Pete, and Michael Massee, playing a pornographer and ex-flame of Renee/Alice’s.

Wagner is the daughter of Natalie Wood, whose suspicious drowning death during a break in the 1981 production of Brainstorm remains one of the most widely obsessed-over unsolved mysterious in all of Hollywood lore and for which her husband, Robert Wagner, remains a prime suspect in the minds of many to this day.

Underrated character actor Massee, meanwhile, was the person who—through no fault of his own—fired the bullet that killed Brandon Lee during the filming of The Crow in 1993, a case that’s received plenty of renewed scrutiny following a similarly lethal incident involving Alec Baldwin on the set of Rust.

Both of those incidents occurred years prior to the filming of Lost Highway, while the charges brought forth against Blake, Eppolito, Manson and Ramirez would come years later. But the tragic event most closely followed the film—and which most directly impacted Lynch himself—came about in the months between the film’s production and its release, by way of the unsolved murder of actor Jack Nance.

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A veteran of the screen and stage, Nance’s life and career were marked by constant setbacks and struggles. After almost landing the lead in Mike Nichol’s The Graduate (1967), Nance had to wait a whole decade for his big break, which occurred when Lynch cast him as to star in his experimental feature debut Eraserhead. Despite that film’s immediate success on the midnight circuit, it failed to lead to more starring roles for Nance. Lynch wanted him to play the title role in his Academy Award nominated follow-up The Elephant Man, but the studio wouldn’t have it. Still, Lynch continued casting him in nearly every project that followed, including as fan favorite Pete in Lynch and Mark Frost’s hit TV series of 1990, Twin Peaks.

Throughout most of this period, Nance battled severe alcoholism, a condition that led to collapse of his first marriage to actress and fellow Lynch regular Catherine Coulson (best remembered as The Log Lady in Peaks). Eventually, Nance managed to get clean with the help of his Blue Velvet costar co-star Dennis Hopper. Hopper—no stranger to addiction himself—allegedly got a drunken and suicidal Nance to step back from a window ledge by plying him with booze and drugs, before personally shuttling him off to rehab.

In rehab, Nance met and fell in love with actress and adult film performer Kelly Jean Van Dyke and the two were quickly married. Nance remained sober during the career high of Twin Peaks, but Van Dyke relapsed. On November 17, 1991, the two got into a heated argument over the phone with Van Dyke threatening to kill herself if Nance hung up on her. In a turn of events so tragic they’d be considered preposterous if you saw them in a movie, a thunderstorm knocked out the phone line on Nance’s end the second after Van Dyke had given him the ultimatum. Nance raced to get hold of the police, but by the time anyone got to Van Dyke, she had already made good on her threat by hanging herself.

Nance eventually fell off the wagon and stayed off it for the remainder of his life, which came to an abrupt end ten months after the filming of Lost Highway, in which he makes the most of his small part as an auto mechanic, acting alongside the legendary comic Richard Pryor, in what would also prove his final film role.

On the morning of November 17, Nance got into an altercation with a group of young men out front of a Winchell’s donuts in Los Angeles. The details of the exchange are muddy: the men may have been a group of cholos; Nance might have been drinking or was still inebriated from the night before. They may have hassled him for no reason; he may have drunkenly initiated things. All that’s certain is that one of the guys slugged Nance, and Nance hit his head when he fell to the ground.

Accustomed as he was to such incidents, Nance went home to sleep it off. He woke up the next day with a black eye and a serious headache, but he didn’t think enough of it to seek medical attention. That afternoon, he met Coulson and another friend for lunch, giving them a brief rundown of the prior day’s encounter, remarking “I told some kid off. I guess I got what I deserved.” After saying goodbye to his friends, he went home and lay down again, only this time he didn’t wake up. Jack Nance died in his sleep at the age of 53 from a subdural hematoma cause by blunt-force trauma to the head. The police investigation ruled his death a homicide, but no suspect was ever named and to this day the case remains open. It’s possible, even likely, that the person who dealt Nance the fatal blow doesn’t know they killed a man.

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In the years since Nance’s passing, Lynch has voiced his regret for not having visited him during those final months, while also contemplating his friend’s fatalistic worldview: “Jack always told me, that he’d be real easy to kill. And that phrase stuck with me after what happened.”

Knowing all this, it’s hard to fathom Lynch wasn’t at least partially thinking of the circumstances revolving around Nance’s death when he came up with the terrifying Winkie’s Diner scene in his next feature, Mulholland Drive (Winkie’s/Winchell’s, anyone?), just as it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t contemplating the various other crimes and tragedies connected to Lost Highway when he shot the aforementioned scene in Inland Empire almost a decade later.

Given that Lost Highway’s production was, by all accounts, a smooth one, it doesn’t seem right to call it a cursed film. But given the way its origins and aura seem to anticipate, if not outright mirror, so many connected tragedies and crimes, it’s seems fair to call it a haunted film.

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