Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch.
Starring: Jack Nance (Henry Spencer), Charlotte Stewart (Mary X), Allen Joseph (Mr. X), Jeanne Bates (Mrs. X), Judith Roberts (Beautiful Girl Across the Hall), Laurel Near (Lady in the Radiator), Jack Fisk (Man in the Planet).
No matter what the circumstances of Eraserhead’s creation, it would be a remarkable achievement. David Lynch’s debut film comes as close as any movie I have ever seen to recreating a nightmare for the audience watching the film. Lynch’s strange wall of sound was ground-breaking in many ways, and places us directly into the headspace of the main character. The art direction makes the film seem like its set in the past and the future at once. The film is remarkable in many ways. What makes that all the more impressive is the fact that Lynch had never directed a feature before, he made this on a shoestring budget – over the course of five years, shooting scenes when he had the money and had to replace the original cinematographer when he died. Yet the movie doesn’t show the signs of what should have been all those limitations.
The film stars Jack Nance as Henry Spencer – a strange, sad, confused young man, dressed in an ill-fitting suit, with a giant mass of hair on his head. He works in a factory – in a bleak industrial hell scape – but says throughout the movie that he’s now “on vacation”. After a lengthy opening of him walking through his world, the plot kicks in when he is called to the house of his girlfriend’s parents. His girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) hasn’t been around much lately – and it has confused Henry. After the surreal dinner begins – with her overly cheerful father, who seems to freeze at times, her angry mother, who like Mary is prone to unexplainable fits, and a very small chicken that bleeds a lot – Henry discovers just why he hasn’t seen Mary in a while – and why he has been called over now. There is baby – at the hospital. It is Mary and Henry’s – so the pair have to get married and raise it. Cut to life in Henry’s nightmarish apartment – with his new wife and child – and things have gone from bad to worse. The child is not a normal child – he looks like a giant spermatozoa or a creature perhaps related to the alien creature for Alien (which came out after this movie). He is a mewling, drooling, slobbering, constantly crying mess of a child. He just won’t shut up – and Mary has soon had enough, and walked out on them both, leaving Henry in charge. And he has no idea what to do.
It doesn’t take a psychology major to figure out the issues that Henry – and Lynch – are going through in the movie. The film is, at its core, about a fear of fatherhood, responsibility, relationship and intimacy. Watching it for the first time since I had children, Eraserhead takes on another dimension. The child in Eraserhead may not be literal child – I don’t think anything in Eraserhead is really literal – but that fear is undeniable. Henry cannot care for the child – and doesn’t know how to. He has other, competing desires – some involving the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. There are two other characters in the film – who represent opposite desires. The film opens with Man in the Planet – played by Jack Fisk (future production designer on films like There Will Be Blood, as well work by Terrence Malick, and yes, David Lynch) – pulling levers, controlling everything above him. Then there is the Lady in the Radiator, who sings her strange song (In Heaven) – which beckons Henry closer.
Eraserhead is an odd film to say the least – the type of film someone like Lynch could only make on his own, without a lot of people getting in the way. The whole film plays like a nightmare – a bleak one at that, with unexplained events littered throughout. Lynch’s films often operate on dream logic rather than reality – but often times there is some relief from the nightmare. Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet at least appear to take place in idyllic places until their secrets come out – but there is nothing idyllic about the world of Eraserhead.
Perhaps the single greatest technical achievement in the film is the sound design – by Lynch and Alan Splet – who worked with Lynch on every project between The Grandmother and Blue Velvet. The sound in the film is constant – the industrial noises that are loud whenever Henry is outside, and seep through the walls when he is not. The constant hiss of the radiator. The ever present crying of the baby – there is not a quiet moment in Eraserhead, and it serves its purpose of placing us in the middle of the nightmare Henry is living. But the film also looks great – shot in stark black and white, first by Herbert Cardwell, who died during production, then by Frederick Elmes – who give the film its nightmare look. There is a dream sequence in the film – a nightmare within the nightmare if you will – which is even bleaker than the rest of the film.
Eraserhead is a dark film, to be sure – a tormented one that could only come from David Lynch. While his shorts had shown promise, they do not equal Eraserhead, which has to stand as one of the greatest debut features of all time. Lynch took his time making this film – part of this was because of lack of funds, but part of it was by design. He took a year to get the sound right for example. It’s as if Lynch, who struggled to get the film made at all, wanted to ensure that whenever he finished it, it was distinctly his. And it is. For such a low budget film, with such a singular vision however, it’s influence can be seen in films as disparate as Kubrick’s The Shining, the Coen’s Barton Fink and David Fincher’s Seven – not to mention Alien (Lynch apparently would not work with H.R. Giger on Dune, because he felt Giger stole his ideas – Giger being the one who designed the Alien after all). It is a perfect place for Lynch’s directing career to truly start. His first great film – and the best thing he would make for quite a while.