'Just awful", "a two-hour stink bomb", "dreadful" and "gruesome" were some of the brickbats hurled in Jennifer Lynch's direction when, as a 25-year-old, she made Boxing Helena, in 1993. This was the film in which Julian Sands played a doctor who amputates the limbs of his former lover so that he can hold her captive. Even before its release, there was controversy when Kim Basinger withdrew from the project and was taken to court for breach of contract. "The numerous sex scenes are good and steamy," opined Variety, but few other reviewers had much positive to say about Lynch's ill-starred debut. The fact that she was David Lynch's daughter and that she had enjoyed such success with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (a book spin-off from her father's Twin Peaks) seemed to increase their hostility.
Now, 16 years later, Jennifer Lynch is venturing out into the light again. She has just made Surveillance, a spooky and brutal horror film set somewhere in the Midwest. Amid the voyeurism and gore, it is a movie full of unreliable narrators and surrealistic twists. As the police investigate a series of murders, we hear the same story from several perspectives.
"I love that non-linear can feel linear. Life, in itself, as we look back on it, seems linear but really hasn't been. I really wanted to explore how people retell things and why they keep certain things to themselves," Lynch explains her storytelling style, beginning to sound more and more like her father.
While the adults in Surveillance, sleazy cops and sinister federal agents, all dissemble, a little girl is the only one who describes honestly what happened. Lynch knows about kids and movies. She was three years old when she appeared in her father's cult horror film Eraserhead. "Heaven!" she exclaims when asked about her memories of what most audiences recall as a deeply disorienting and oddball film experience. "It was better than Disneyland... it was strangely settling rather than unsettling."
She grew up watching her parents paint and make films. Her mother, Peggy Reavey, is an artist. "She, too, took time off from her life and her dreams to raise me. She found a way to incorporate being an artist into her parenting," Lynch recalls. "There is something so potent to me about my mother's work in the same way that there's something potent to me about my father's. It's just one is more well-known to the public than the other."
You can hardly blame Lynch for keeping a lowish profile in recent years. In her early twenties, she was praised to the hilt for The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. Then, when Boxing Helena appeared, the press turned on her with a vengeance.
"I am not even sure they [the press] were judging Boxing Helena. I felt almost as though there was this venomous mob mentality that just came after me personally. It didn't have anything to do with the film any longer. They were making statements about my value as a human being."
Looking back, Lynch calls her experience "terrifying" and "sorrowful". Older and chastened, she says she has learnt to accept that "some people just can't stand me. It doesn't matter what I do."
After Boxing Helena, Lynch went into therapy: "I started writing and crept into myself a bit." She lists what seem like seismic moments in her life, including the birth of her daughter and a car crash that threatened to leave her wheelchair-bound, in an utterly matter-of-fact way. "I started a relationship, got pregnant, had a baby, raised her on my own and had spinal surgeries. As soon as she [my daughter] was old enough and I was able to walk again, I went back to work. But it was 15 years of learning and self-discovery."
Striking an obdurately cheerful note, Lynch suggests that the fallout from Boxing Helena was educative as well as traumatic. "I look on it as this very haunting and powerful thing that I witnessed about people becoming very excited about who it was time to hate." She adds that most of her critics didn't engage with the film in any meaningful way. "It was so much about I am David's daughter, I must hate women, [and] the trial with Kim Basinger. It just became a mud-slinging contest. And when they started to mislead audiences and promote it [Boxing Helena] as if it was some sexy Nine and a Half Weeks or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I thought, no, no, no! I wrote this when I was 19. It was a fairy tale about a cool Snow White and a flaccid Prince Charming and why we shouldn't try to make people love us."
Lynch points out that her obsessions then were much the same as those of most other 19-year-olds fresh out of art school. "You're thinking about obsession and you're writing about love."
You can see her point. Her critics were being very literal-minded. Just because she made a highly stylised movie about a doctor who amputates the limbs of the woman he loves, that doesn't mean she is advocating violence or is anti-feminist.
Lynch likes to look on the positive side. "Nobody is cool unless they're unhappy. I am a relatively happy person. I feel really lucky to have the friends I have, to be my daughter's mother and to be my mother's daughter, to be able to walk... for a while, I didn't know if I would."
David Lynch is famously interested in transcendental meditation. This, it turns out, is an enthusiasm his daughter shares. "I've been a meditator since I was six years old," she declares. "I champion the way my father is very bravely and boldly offering up this as a means of creativity and healing for the world. It's a very brave thing to do. It's not the most popular choice but it's something he believes in so passionately."
She also agrees with her father's beliefs about emotional intelligence: his idea that the West sets too much store by verbal dexterity. "It leaves out things that can't be measured by SATs or Mensa. We discredit people who are instinctual or intelligent in heart and spirit."
Her own films, like those of her father, eschew tidy plots or genre clichés. They're provocative and disturbing. Surveillance has a warped, nightmarish quality. We see fleeting images of massacres in motel rooms. Even the most familiar settings – a stretch of highway or the interior of a police station – are given a threatening feel. Humour is in short supply, unless you like your jokes on the sadistic, extremely morbid side. Nonetheless, the film (which recently won a prize at the Sitges Festival for fantasy and horror movies) effectively cranks up the tension. Lynch also elicits an excellent performance from Julia Ormond as a federal agent who isn't at all what she seems.
Having made Surveillance, Lynch is now heading east. Her next project is a Bollywood movie. Nagin: The Snake Women (aka Hisss), which she is writing and directing, is in Hindi and in English. "It's going to be a blast, with the dance, the Indian actors, the full thing," she promises.
For years, Lynch has been pigeonholed. On one level, the media have done to her what Julian Sands' surgeon did to Helena (Sherilyn Fenn) in her debut feature: that's to say, put her in a box. The evidence now, though, is that she is at last managing to escape.
'Surveillance' is out now