“He showed me this little script he had written for Eraserhead. It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing.”–Jack Nance
PLOT: Henry is a factory worker living in a dingy apartment in a desolate urban nowhere. His girlfriend Mary’s mother informs him the girl has given birth to his child–although Mary objects, “Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!” Henry and Mary get married and care for the monstrous, reptilian, constantly crying infant until Mary can take no more and deserts the family, leaving Henry alone to care for the mutant and to dream of the oatmeal-faced woman who lives inside his radiator and sings to him about the delights of heaven.
- Eraserhead was started with a $10,000 grant from the American Film Institute while Lynch was a student at their conservatory. Initially, the 21 or 22 page script was intended to run about 40 minutes. Lynch kept adding details, like the Lady in the Radiator (who was not in the original script), and the movie eventually took five years to complete.
- When Lynch ran out of money from the AFI, the actress Sissy Spacek and her husband, Hollywood production designer Jack Fisk, contributed money to help complete the film. Fisk also played the role of the Man in the Planet.
- Lynch slept in the set used for Henry’s apartment for a year while making the film.
- After the initial screening, Lynch cut 20 minutes off of the film. Little of the excised footage survives.
- Eraserhead was originally distributed by Ben Barenholtz’s Libra Films and was marketed as a “midnight movie” like their previous underground sensation, El Topo (1970).
- Based on the success of Eraserhead, Lynch was invited to create the mainstream drama The Elephant Man (1980) for Paramount, a huge critical success for which he received the first of his three “Best Director” nominations at the Academy Awards.
- Jack Nance had at least a small role in four other Lynch movies, and played Pete Martell in Lynch’s television series, “Twin Peaks.” His scenes in the movie adaptation Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1990) were deleted. Nance died in 1997 after being struck in the head in an altercation at a doughnut shop.
- Lynch has written that when he was having difficulty with the direction the production was heading, he read a Bible verse that tied the entire vision together for him, although he has refused to cite the verse and in a recent interview actually claims to have forgotten it.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The iconic image is Henry, wearing that expression permanently lodged between the quizzical and the horrified, with the peak of his absurd pompadour glowing in the light as suspended eraser shavings float and glitter behind him. Of course, Eraserhead is nothing if not a series of indelible images, so others may find the scarred man who sits by the broken window, the mutant infant, or the girl in the radiator to be the vision that haunts their nightmares.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Eraserhead is probably the greatest recreation of a nightmare ever filmed, a marvelous and ambiguous mix of private and cosmic secrets torn from the subconscious. Or, as Lynch puts it, it’s “a dream of dark and disturbing things.”
Original trailer for Eraserhead
COMMENTS: When you tell people you are interested in “weird” movies, I’d wager at least half the time they respond with, “You mean like Eraserhead?“
“Normal” folks despise this film. The most common complaint is that the imagery is needlessly repulsive, followed by an objection that it’s incomprehensible and meaningless, followed by an accusation that it’s slow and boring. Eraserhead is intense; it’s like being thrust into someone else’s expertly produced nightmare. There are no comforting narrative guideposts, no way to predict what is coming next. Eraserhead absorbs you into its own warped world, and the experience is simply too unpleasant for many. No one can be convinced to admire it, but it’s one of the must-see features in the weird canon. And, like it or hate it, with its unique textures and anxious rhythms Eraserhead expands the possibilities of what film can achieve, making it a landmark film for anyone interested in the art of cinema.
Eraserhead is totally original in every element: the look, the sound, and the feel. Despite the tremendous waves the film made after release and its imposing underground reputation, it’s remarkable that so few filmmakers who followed have attempted to imitate Eraserhead’s overall style (Elevator Movie  is one film that does mine similar territory, with limited success). The style of later Lynch films has proven much easier for poseurs to copy, but as a whole Eraserhead remains inimitable, which is one suggestion of its greatness.
Lynch has said that the look of Eraserhead was inspired by Philadelphia (a point that the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce fails to mention in its brochures). It just as easily could have been modeled after any decaying northeastern U.S. city. Henry’s world is an expressionistic urban hellhole; rubble lines the empty streets, and industrial fixtures, smoke and steam are everywhere. His squalid apartment has a window that doesn’t exactly look out on a brick wall; it appears that the bricks have been laid directly on top of the window pane. The sparse and ruined look of Henry’s world has led many to assume that Eraserhead takes place in some post-apocalyptic future, although no other internal evidence justifies that leap.
The black and white cinematography is extraordinary; each frame is packed with visual textures, from the industrial to the organic. Any still selected at random demonstrates extraordinary detail and composition. In the prelude to the love scene between Henry and his neighbor across the hall, the most dimly lit sequence in the film, Lynch’s use of the inky end of the grayscale is incredible; the lovers faces blink out of existence in the darkness, then slowly fade back into frame as they move out of the shadows. Ignoring the content of the movie and viewing it simply as a work of photography, Eraserhead is a masterpiece of craftsmanship.
Using low-budget ingenuity, the film creates several startling visual effects. The baby itself is a masterpiece of instinctive horror, and Lynch was careful to never explain how it was made. There is a (to my knowledge unsubstantiated) rumor that it was created from, or modeled after, a calf fetus; whatever the case, it’s an alien, reptilian thing. Makeup is simple but effective; the radiator girl looks like Shirley Temple, but with grotesquely puffy cheeks. Lynch even manages to create his own planet for the film. Although none of the effects would be mistaken for CGI, the monochrome color scheme is forgiving, and the props and makeup do have the perfect qualities to convey a strange and alien visual message that reinforces the odd narrative.
The sound design, by future Academy Award winner Alan Splet, is crucial to Eraserhead’s power to draw us into its world. There is hardly a moment of complete silence in the film; whatever we are seeing is always accompanied, at the very least, by a distant industrial hum. Lynch and Splet seemed acutely aware of the omnipresence of machines in our world, and they draw attention to the ever present background buzz of electric filaments and the drone of distant machines working with mysterious purpose. These mechanical noises, which vary in pitch and intensity, blend with the sound of a howling wind (a noise especially associated with the mysterious planet) in an ever shifting soundscape that mixes in off-key organ chords or bowed cellos and rises to an onerous howl during particularly intense sequences. The ceaseless bleating of Henry’s baby–a sound which is fearful because it’s not quite human, but one that also engages our sympathy because it is so clearly a cry of distress–is haunting.
Lynch’s directorial style forces the visual and sonic elements to the forefront. The film is deliciously slow-paced, like a silent film; it even plays for more than ten minutes before the first line of dialogue is spoken. Lynch holds a single shot for far longer than another director would, allowing us time to soak up the detail in the frame. In a faster-paced film we might miss the fact that Henry constantly wears a pocket protector to protect his suit from leaking pens, and oddly prophylactic character trait in a man who has supposedly fathered an illegitimate child. At times, this slow pace is deliberately disturbing, as when the elevator door in Henry’s lobby takes what seems like forever to close; we are left with an uncomfortable feeling, although Henry stands there impassive and expressionless. There is a constant social awkwardness throughout the film; characters pause and stare for just a bit too long before responding to simple questions, creating an isolated, alienated ambiance.
Thankfully, the film is more than just an unending, unbearable parade of drawn-out disturbances. Lynch’s eye finds the beauty amidst squalor and despair as well as any filmmaker ever has. There is enough humor in the film to lighten the way, although much of it is so subtle and absurd that it may take a second viewing to appreciate it. The uneasy dinner with Mary’s family is a minor masterpiece of black comedy; Mary’s comatose grandmother helps toss the salad, despite being completely paralyzed, and the new manmade chickens Henry is asked to carve squirm their legs when poked with a fork. Lynch also inserts a mild slapstick moment into one of Henry’s dreams in order to break the tension.
But even more than the occasional comedy, what elevates Eraserhead above a mere mood piece is the drama. The world Henry inhabits may be almost unrecognizably unreal, but his predicament–a young father with a deformed child, deserted by his weak wife and forced to care full time for his ugly, sickly, needy offspring–is real, human, and tragicomic. We can identify with besieged Henry, whose bandaged babe’s bleating rises to alarming levels when he so much as touches the doorknob to leave his apartment. At the same time, we feel for the baby, who is innocent and vulnerable despite its loathsome appearance. Henry cares for the unnamed baby with true tenderness at times, even as his frustration and loneliness grow. Although they are united by blood, Henry and his child are at bottom antagonists, and our sympathies are torn as we are able to empathize with both sides.
Although it’s taboo to admit, new parents inevitably have moments when they resent the control their own offspring seizes over their lives. Eraserhead mines these forbidden, repressed feelings and pushes them to an absurd, horrifying conclusion. Henry’s trapped situation creates a unique and tense emotional texture that reflects a real human truth. The strained relationship between father and child is the anchor which keeps the movie upright, even as waves of dream imagery threaten to capsize it.
Interpreting Eraserhead—in the sense of laying out a schemata that says “the Man in the Planet represents X, the baby represents Y” and wrenching out some sort of philosophical conclusion—is a popular but misguided parlor game. Lynch himself has said that “no reviewer or critic or viewer has ever given an interpretation that is my interpretation, since the 25 or more years that it’s been out.” That’s fine; after all, Lynch is only the co-author of the script. The other half of it is composed by Lynch’s subconscious, working uncredited. It’s worth noting that at approximately the time he conceived the script, Lynch was living in a cheap apartment in Philadelphia with his then pregnant wife.
Most perceptive critics have pointed out that the film centers around an impressionistic theme of horror at the idea of procreation, and have wisely left it at that. Sexual imagery is pervasive, and it overwhelmingly operates at the biological, reproductive level, almost never at the erotic level. Small monsters, a cross between a mutant spermatozoa and a fetus with the umbilical cord still attached, reappear throughout the film. When smashed, they burst in thick, white, semenous splashes. In the beginning of the film, one of these beings appears superimposed over Henry’s head; when the Man in the Planet pulls a lever, it shoots out and splashes into a pool of liquid. Later, these same sperm-monsters creatures fall on the Lady in the Radiator from above, and she casually grinds them beneath the heel of her shoe with a smile. Fertilizing sperm, which is after all the ultimate source of Henry’s suffering, appears as the enemy. At one crucial point, the baby’s head grows out of Henry’s neck and displaces his head, which falls to the ground disregarded—as if his own offspring has replaced him and made Henry himself irrelevant.
Despite filmgoers vain desire to find concrete symbolism so as to “make sense” of the film in a conventional way, Eraserhead doesn’t have a rational “meaning.” It’s effective precisely because it’s not pedantic, does not attempt to shove a point down the viewers throat, but instead forces you into an otherworldly space inside someone else’s head. Any meaning that may be gleaned from it is a quintessentially weird one, an expression of an irrational, nightmarish feeling that can’t properly be described in literal terms. It’s a touchstone film that provides an important link between the classical surrealists (Buñuel, Cocteau) and today’s neosurrealists. Even more than that, Eraserhead is not so much a movie as it is an amazingly immersive experience, one that everyone who claims to be a fan of weird cinema needs to dip him or herself into at least once.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…watching this daringly irrational movie, with its interest in dream logic, you almost feel that you’re seeing a European avant-garde gothic of the 20s or early 30s… The slow, strange rhythm is very unsettling and takes some getting used to, but it’s an altogether amazing, sensuous film; it even has an element of science fiction and some creepy musical numbers, and the sound track is as original and peculiar as the imagery.”–Pauline Kael
“The black-and-white world of ‘Eraserhead’ disturbs, seduces and even shocks with images that are alternately discomforting, even physically off-putting, and characterized by what André Breton called convulsive beauty. It also amuses, in its own weird way, with scenes of preposterous, macabre comedy…”–Manohla Dargis, New York Times (rerelease)
IMDB LINK: Eraserhead (1977)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Radiator Heaven: Eraserhead – an excellent, well-written summary of the background of the movie
David Lynch Eraserhead – a German fan site that has not been updated in a while but contains behind-the-scenes stills and links to articles of interest (including many in languages other than English)
City of Absurdity: David Lynch’s Eraserhead – another unofficial fan site, with more archived articles
DVD INFO: The 2000 single disc of Eraserhead (buy), the version reviewed here, has been impeccably remastered by Lynch. (For a while, it was exclusively sold through his site, but can now be purchased from retailers). The film looks and sounds absolutely pristine. The primary extra is 90 minutes of wandering but fascinating reflections (titled “stories”) about the creation of Eraserhead by Lynch, who smokes throughout the interview and puts Catherine Coulson (assistant director and assistant camera) on speakerphone to add her remembrances. The disc also includes the original trailer. Of note is the fact that the menu sequence consists of a deleted scene, with Henry observing a scary looking dead cat (we discover the history of this cat in the” Stories” extra feature). There is also a minor Easter egg you can locate by cycling through the chapters, although it doesn’t make much sense.
Because Lynch was so meticulous in his black and white cinematography (the film contains some lingering afterimages in certain fades that you may miss), the disc also includes a feature which allows you to calibrate the brightness and contrast on your television set. Although it’s a nice idea, you may find it annoying if your DVD player insists on auto-playing this feature every time you place the disc inside it. Like the feature presentation, the menu sequence also moves at its own slow pace, not allowing you to access the movie or the extras until it’s good and ready. Also, Lynch doesn’t believe in chapter menus and hasn’t included any, which means you’ll have to use the fast-forward button to reach a particular scene.
The movie is also available in a limited edition two-disc gift set together with The Short Films of David Lynch (buy). It comes in a special gift box with a twenty page booklet. Short Films consists of six short subjects, with introductions by Lynch, and includes all three of his pre-Eraserhead works.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Felipe A.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)