Eraserhead - 1977
Director(s): David Lynch
Writer(s): David Lynch
Cinematography by: Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes
Editor(s): David Lynch
Cast: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Roberts and Laurel Near
While I have been a fan of David Lynch's work - here on this website you can read my desperate attempt to decode Mulholland Drive and understand what he wanted from me (probably never did crack it), and my mixed feelings on his wildly divisive film, Blue Velvet - I had never seen his directorial debut, 1977's Eraserhead. The film that cemented him as one of the unique and creative (and to some creepy) voices in Hollywood, and showcases what themes and visuals he will explore for the rest of his career. Come along as I correct this wrong in my third edition of trying to understand what Lynch wants from me. Let's talk about it.
The story follows Henry Spencer (Nance) as he lives in a small, claustrophobic apartment in an industrial city. Henry is invited to dinner by his girlfriend, Mary X (Stewart), to meet the parents, and leans that she is pregnant. When the child is born, it is an inhuman, reptile-like creature that will not stop crying and drives Mary to the brink of insanity, making her abandon both Henry and their child. Henry, now alone with the child and drowning in his insistent crying resorts to extreme measures to finally get back the quiet and empty apartment he is used to living in. Oh, and a lady is living in the radiator.
From time to time one may describe a film as "not for everyone" - and that can come across pretentious or accusing people of being philistines - but it in this extremely subjective art form that is an evergreen statement. Eraserhead is not for everyone, and that pretty much goes for Lynch's catalog. I loved Mulholland Drive (was for me) and struggled with Blue Velvet (wasn't for me). As for Eraserhead, this was tailor made for me, and I had a blast exploring this weird, dark, and complexed look at fatherhood, fear, self-doubt, and loneliness. It is beyond impressive that this is technically a student film from Lynch, as he started the project while studying at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies and finished in a span of five years after leaving school with a budget coming from a mixture of AFI, friends, family and his paper route.
Knowing how low budget the film's production was, and how long it took for Lynch and his crew to finish it, only adds to my sense of awe when it comes to the visuals. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes' color palette provides the perfect backdrop for the eerie and inventive creature designs. Lynch created all the puppets and props that even though they look cheap at times, they deliver on the disturbing and flat out disgusting nature of Henry's state of mind. The baby puppet freaked me out, and the climax of the film somehow makes you feel for it in the end. The score by Lynch (he wears a lot of hats) sets the tone, and mirrors the visuals to a tee – it stayed in my head days after I watched the film.
As for the story, Lynch has publicly said that no one has interpreted his vision or meaning, but just like any art, it is what the audience takes from it that counts in the end (right or wrong). What I took away from this wild ride is Henry is being consumed by fear - of the world outside his apartment, of the unwanted relationship, and then becoming a father. These fears are embodied by the creature baby that will not stop crying and leave Henry alone. Some elements, as is the case for all Lynch's project, seem weird for the sake of being weird, but the overall story lands and the creative visuals enhance the experience.
Eraserhead is a remarkable first film that is just as impactful as it was when it can out in 1977. The blend of arthouse, horror, and surreal elements create an experience that immerses you in Henry’s world and doesn’t let you go unscathed. Like I said above the film is not for everyone, but I do recommend it to all in hopes you fall in love with this beautiful nightmare as I did.
Eraserhead is Why I Love Movies.
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