Eraserhead (1977)

After watching Dune as my first David Lynch film, I realized that he might best be approached in a chronological fashion. So I rented Eraserhead, Lynch’s first feature, and sat down to watch it, unaware of what I was in for. I of course knew a bit of Lynch’s reputation as a filmmaker, but no amount of reading or talking about him could prepare me for the surreal grotesque nightmare that is Eraserhead.

After a very strange intro that’s symbolic of either conception or birth, we are introduced to the world of Henry Spencer, our hapless protagonist. Henry’s played by Jack Nance, who plays our hero with a great combination of awkwardness, naivete, and gentleness. This temperament is necessary for Henry as he encounters a number of strange things in the world in which he lives.

It turns out Henry has impregnated a girl, and she’s given premature birth to a very strange and unsettling baby. This deformed offspring, which consists of little more than an egg-shaped head and a limbless, tail-like torso, becomes the driving device in Lynch’s experimental narrative. I’m not sure if the baby was anything more than a puppet, but whatever it is, it succeeds in being creepy and distressing enough to center Henry’s problems around.

The whole film is like that baby: creepy and distressing. I find it pretty funny that this movie was Lynch’s reaction to the news that he was going to be a father. A bizarre feeling permeates the story from start to finish. Filmed in black and white with a big emphasis on shadows and dark lighting, every formal aspect of the movie plays into its tone. Besides the lighting, there’s also a strong focus on sound.

Henry is never given a moment of peace, as there is always background noise throughout the movie. Whether it’s hissing or the baby’s nerve-racking cries, there is never a mute moment. Sometimes, as with the crying, the sound is strictly abrasive. Other times it goes further and moves us to nausea in its grossness – there’s moments where suckling and gushing sound effects are so intense that you may want to cover your ears. Sound is one of those things that often falls flat in the realm of independent movies, so it’s impressive that Lynch is able to use it so powerfully and effectively here.

The film’s story is strange and doesn’t make sense like a standard narrative. But even if you’re someone who focuses on story, the sequences strung together by our hero’s misfortunes and dreams should be interesting enough to entertain you for the short duration of the film. The scene where Henry visits his “baby” mama and finds out about the birth is full of dark humor and feelings of sympathy for Henry. Interjecting vignettes included a disfigured man pulling levers and a slightly less disfigured woman on a theatrical stage. She sings a haunting song, “In Heaven Everything is Fine”, that will probably begrudgingly stick in your head after you finish the film. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sultry and seductive neighbor, whose close-ups penetrate you and make you desire exactly what Henry awkwardly receives.

Eraserhead launched Lynch’s career, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s one of the most original and thoroughly grotesque movies I’ve ever seen, and I was captivated by every single scene, down to the explosively weird ending. I like to rate movies for what they are, because films like animations and comedies shouldn’t be judged by the same criteria as masterful dramas and biopics. As far as dark, experimental, surreal films goes, Eraserhead is perfect. If you are interested in any of those three types of films, then there is simply no excuse for not seeing Eraserhead.

Final rating: 10/10

–James A. Janisse


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