REVIEW: Eraserhead (1977)

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Directed by David Lynch
Written by David Lynch
Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Judith Roberts, Laurel Near, Jack Fisk

David Lynch, weirdo extraordinaire, once said of his debut film, Eraserhead, that it is a “dream of dark and troubling things.” That will probably forever be the most apt and clear explanation we will ever get about just what this film is about, because upon watching the first few minutes, I’m sure you will find it to be an entrancing if impenetrable experience.

Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a hapless factory worker on his vacation when he finds out he’s the father of a hideously deformed baby. Now living with his unhappy, malcontent girlfriend (Charlotte Stewart), the child cries day and night, driving Henry and his girlfriend to near insanity.

Note that the above synopsis, while generally accurate, is only a fraction of what viewers see during a showing of Eraserhead. I once used to tell prospective audiences of the film that it is the closest they can come to having an acid trip without taking acid, and while I don’t truly know what that is like, that remains my easiest go-to for recommending it. Lynch, having built a large and loyal fanbase with his dream-like, odd, and frankly disturbing visions of celluloid, still has never come close to his original nightmarish effort as seen here.

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According to the bonus features contained on the Criterion Collection blu-ray, Eraserhead took five years to complete, with much of that time spent in an abnormally-extended production period. Lynch and cinematographers Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell would work at such a slow pace that at one point, the production was only shooting 1-2 takes per night, spending most of their time intricately lighting the set and rehearsing every move, no matter how small, with main actor Jack Nance. However, by all accounts, the project suffered little-to-no ills of frustration or creative difference. Such is the oddity of Eraserhead; even its overlong production did the opposite of expected, only bringing its cast and crew closer together.

The result of this gargantuan time process is nothing short of stunning. Sequences of horrific and eerie shapes and monsters pervade images of planets floating in empty space, a smaller-scale preview of the psychedelic imagery contained in Lynch’s later adaptation of Dune. These give way to timid little Henry Spencer as he makes his way through an industrial wasteland, so choked with dirtiness and devoid of meaningful life that it feels like the world of Brazil after some devastating apocalypse, or as if the Garden of Eden itself was overrun by automated machinery after Adam and Eve were cast out of it.

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As these more epic sights give way to the main setting of the film, namely Henry’s one-room apartment, the film takes on an incredible gradation of light and shadow, unseen by my eyes in countless other black-and-white flicks viewed over almost three decades. Here, Nance delivers a wonderfully-subtle performance, constantly appearing aware of some great trouble befalling him, but consciously not aware. On the outside, he is the bumbling oaf he appears to be, and yet, inside his eyes, there is terrible screaming.

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There are several more parts crucial to the film, especially Charlotte Stewart as Henry’s incessantly-breaking girlfriend Mary X, and of course, the ever-present Lady in the Radiator, played by Laurel Near. She is the star of several wacky dream sequences that wriggle in and out of the main narrative and Henry’s head, providing some strange laughs that just as quickly morph into disturbing tableaus that call back to some unappetizing Francis Bacon drawings. Much of these are accomplished by old-school in-camera special effects work, and while crude compared to today’s methods, they lose no impact, thanks to Lynch’s increasingly bizarre intuition.

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But what is this intuition guiding us to? Just what is Eraserhead about, what is the point? The point may be, there is no point. As Lynch has said in the past, Eraserhead is an incredibly subjective film, it’s meaning changing in the eye of the beholder. While some elements are always there, mainly the presence of fear and ever-building uneasiness, in reality, there is no right or wrong answer. I’ve read some truly inventive theories over the years, ranging from “Henry is in Hell” to the film being “a treatise on the fears of parenthood.” These are all wonderful readings, but in the end no more correct than the next. And really, is that not a beautiful thing?

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But (final but) should you see it? After all, Eraserhead could best be described as being an art-house film, rich in substance but generally confusing to an everyday audience who desire an escapist story. While I would hope everyone would at least give it a chance and watch it once, the world can’t be perfect. I would say that if your are one of those precious few that likes films like Aronofsky’s Mother or have found enjoyment in Lynch’s more mainstream work like Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks (did I just call those mainstream? Ha!), then definitely seek this out.

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