Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why is Frank Booth Such a Great Character?

In my popular article Why Do People Like James Bond?, I discussed how James Bond is not the awesome superspy everyone makes him out to be but a sexist pervert who can't get within ten feet of a woman without thinking about having sex with her. Hang on, this is reminding me of someone else. A sexist pervert obsessed with sex and violence? Yes, I am going there.

Let's look at a similar character, although this time one whose perverted characteristics are fully played for all their disturbing qualities rather than attempting to pass off sexual assault and harassment as charming, in the form of Frank Booth, as played by the late Dennis Hopper in David Lynch's 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet, known for such classic lines such as "DON'T YOU LOOK AT ME!" or "HEINEKEN!? @#$)!$ THAT &%!$#! PABST BLUE RIBBON!"

For those of you not familiar with this character, he's sort of like a grown-up version of Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, right down to having a gang of "droogs" (he doesn't use that word, but they are a group of psycho perverts who follow him around). He is a bit nastier though, as while Alex simply liked to run around raping women and beating up men, Frank enjoys committing murder and forcing a woman into becoming his personal sex slave by kidnapping her child and mutilating her husband. He is also a bit more... open minded in his sexual activities to the point where he openly declares "I'LL #$%& ANYTHING THAT MOVES!"

Also, a discussion of this character would not be complete without bringing up his habit of inhaling some sort of gas out of a tank. In the original script this was supposed to be helium, but Hopper himself had just overcome a drug addiction, and suggested a separate gas (though he later regretted it, thinking that Frank might be more intimidating if his voice became high-pitched). It's not identified in the movie itself, but whatever it is it seems to dull his senses and get him sexually aroused.

I once made a poll on IMDB in which I asked the question of who was the creepiest character in David Lynch's body of work, and I was surprised to see that Frank Booth was the most popular choice (followed closely by BOB from Twin Peaks in second with the Mystery Man from Lost Highway and Bobby Peru from Wild at Heart competing for third). I would have said that Frank was one of Lynch's less terrifying characters, but evidently a lot of people disagree with me.

So what makes Frank such an interesting character? Well, what makes a character like the Mystery Man in Lost Highway so frightening is that we know nothing about him. He seems to be otherworldly, perhaps even inhuman, but we never find out for sure just where he comes from, who he is, or what his connection is to Fred Madision and Pete Dayton. We can only speculate on just what the deal is with this character, but whoever he is, he seems to have control over everything.

With Frank, it's sort of the opposite. He is a human being firmly grounded in reality. He isn't perfect, but what makes him frightening is that someone like him could theoretically exist. Like the Mystery Man, we never get a full explanation for who Frank is, where he comes from, or how he became the way he is, just that he is a messed-up psycho. Also to add to the terrifying aspects of his character is the environment in which he lives.

At first glance the town of Lumberton seems very pleasant, but much like the titular setting of Twin Peaks or Hollywood in Mulholland Dr., there are darker components. We see Jeffrey living in what seems to be a decent enough neighborhood where everyone knows each other and the people generally seem nice. The fact that Frank Booth is able to abuse a young woman and remain unnoticed as long as he has (its implied he has been up to this for some time) is pretty disturbing, not to mention how close all this was to Jeffrey's own house.

We can also bring up the infantile aspects of his character. There is something rather disturbing about seeing a middle-aged man acting very immaturely while sexually abusing a woman, especially when addressing her as "Mommy" as though there are some incestual implications to his actions.

Seeing a man cursing persistently (to the point where he is the only character to swear in the whole movie, with the exception of a single line from Dean Stockwell) combined with the constant inhaling of whatever that gas is and his tendency to act very immaturely while having sex all combine together to create a very disturbing image.

Frank Booth may well be one of Lynch's most disturbing creations if only because of just how different he is from sort of "antagonists" we would usually get in Lynch's films. With many of Lynch's films we get mysterious characters such as the Lady in the Radiator and the Man in the Planet from Eraserhead, and the Mystery Man in Lost Highway who seem to have some otherworldly vibe and potentially control everything. Frank Booth is simply a psycho, not a whole lot else.

We never learn what made him this way, but his character is firmly grounded in reality, and the sort of man who in theory could exist. Who's to say that somewhere in your hometown there isn't a psycho like this lurking about, someone who does all kinds of terrible things and goes entirely unnoticed?


  1. very true, a most memorable character, and one I was surprised that nobody picked when we did our blogathon

    1. Indeed, he is quite memorable among Lynch's strange cast of characters. Maybe next year if I can catch the blogathon in time I could find a less obvious example from one of David Lynch's other movies.