PCA Retro Review: Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead (1977) – Most people have heard of it, but fewer can claim to have actually experienced witer/director David Lynch’s feature length debut Eraserhead.  Hailed as one of the most important cult films in the history of the medium, Eraserhead is one of cinema’s most enigmatic and puzzling pictures, but remains to be David Lynch’s masterpiece.

Jack Nance as Henry Sprencer in David Lynch's masterpiece "Eraserhead"

Henry Spencer is not having a good week.  On “holidays” from his job as a printer, the bizarre looking quite man is invited to the home of his estranged sweetheart, Mary X, for an awkward dinner with Mary’s strange family.  At the dinner he learns that Mary, unbeknownst to him, has given birth to a deformed child and that the two of them are to be married and together they are to raise the baby.  Henry steps up to plate bringing Mary and the baby, who looks like a skinless turkey fetus, back to his one room apartment situated in an industrial slum, to live as a family.  However, Mary quickly walks out on Henry, forcing him to care for the monstrous newborn on his own, driving him to his own surreal nightmare of lust, death, and apocalyptic madness.  

Although the basic plot of Eraserhead is easy to decipher, the bizarre imagery, dream sequences, and strange characters and their surreal behavior leaves far more questions asked then understood.  Eraserhead is a film that continues to baffle film critics, historians and fans to this day.  Possibly the only person who truly understands Eraserhead is David Lynch himself who has stated that it is his most “spiritual” film.

David Lynch and Jack Nance take a break during filming of "Eraserhead"

Eraserhead was developed while Lynch was studying film at LA’s American Film Institute after a previous film he was planning, called Gardenback, fell apart due to interference by his instructors.  Threatening to quit the program, his teachers, who considered Lynch, who was 25 years old at the time,  to be a genius, encouraged him to start over and promised not to interfere with his next project.  Awarding him a $10000 grant, Lynch began filming Eraserhead in 1971.  However, the money quickly ran out and over the next six years Lynch begged and borrowed money to continue the film, even going as far as to deliver newspapers for the Wall Street Journal as a way to continue making funds to keep production a float.  Forced to shut down production numerous times over the six years, Lynch relied on the continuous support of friends and relatives in order to keep production going over long period of times.  In the process of the film, Lynch’s marriage broke apart, in which he actually began living full time on the set of the film, using Henry Spencer’s slum apartment as his own place of residence. 

David Lynch applies makeup to Laurel Near, "The Lady in the Radiator."

Eventually Eraserhead was complete and released in 1977 to mixed reactions from the film community.  Rejected by the Cannes and New York Film Festivals, it was eventually picked up by the Los Angeles film festival where film distributor Ben Baronholtz discovered it.  With the new trend of the underground “Midnight Movie” circuit sweeping North America, making film such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pink Flamingos and Night of the Living Dead into massive cult successes, Baronholtz picked up Erasrehead and sent it on the same circuit, quickly establishing it as a major underground cult favorite.

Instead of dialouge, "Eraserhead" depends on visuals, character and sound

Heavily inspired by the German surrealist films of the silent era, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, Eraserhead relies primarily on visuals and sounds instead of dialogue.  Although there is a coherent script put into place, Lynch only has his characters say what is needed to be conveyed in as few sentences as possible instead of allowing the film to get bogged down in unnecessary dialogue which would have taken away from the surreal experience of viewing the film.  In fact, while the film runs for 85 minutes, the script was only 21 pages long!  Futher adding to the surrealistic nature of the film, while Eraserhead doesn’t necessarily take place in the past or the future, Lynch creates a bleak and nightmarish dystopia, filled with little hope, and full of disturbing characters and imagery. 

Allen Joseph, as Mr. X (with his daugther Mary X, played by Charlotte Stewart, cowering behind him) provided intentional comedy to an otherwise bleak film

Yet, despite the overall bleakness of the film, Eraserhead is not without its quirky off beat comedic moments which have become a staple in Lynch’s work.  The awkward dinner party at Mary X’s home is not without its humor, especially centered around Mary’s strange father, played by Allen Joseph, who gives the funniest performance in the film.  Mary’s attempt to collect her luggage during her plight from Henry’s apartment also provides a much needed “laugh out loud” moment to what is essentially a bleak situation.  The strange Woman in the Radiator’s dance number, in which she squashes tapeworms under her feet, and bizarre musical moment can’t help the viewer from cracking a smile.  Filled with obvious comedic moments, one begins to wonder if Eraserhead is meant to be a black comedy of sorts after awhile.  Yet, the disturbing imagery, leading up to the ambiguous ending, makes viewers change their minds quickly.  If Eraserhead is a comedy, then David Lynch has one fucked up sense of humor.

Jack Nance would continue to be a staple in David Lynch films until his unsolved murder in 1996

In the role of Henry Spencer, David Lynch cast San Francisco based stage actor Jack Nance.  One of the most eccentric actors in pop culture history, Jack Nance’s life would be as strange as the films he was in, making him a real life David Lynch character.  In the role of Henry, Jack Nance brings a certain quiet and gentle quality to a man who is obvious trying to do the right thing, but is victim to a nightmare that he can not escape.  Lynch would be so enamored by Nance’s performance that he would continue to cast Nance in all of his films, as well as his cult TV series Twin Peaks (Nance played the role of factory foreman Pete Martel) until his unsolved murder in 1996.

The revolting child of Henry and Mary was rumored to be created from a puppet made out of a horse fetus

The other star of the film is easily Henry and Mary’s deformed child.  Unsettling to look at, the child is rumored to have been a sort of puppet that was made out of a horse fetus.  Yet, somehow, through basic sounds of crying, breathing and, in one eerie scene, laughing, the child comes to life and manages to be one of the strongest presences in the film, disturbing both the viewer and the characters in the film.  Yet, while Mary and Henry’s neighbor, credited as The Beautiful Woman across the Hall, are repulsed by the child, Henry tries to do what he can to care for it.  Yet, by the end, even Henry can’t find love for the twisted freak of nature.

But the question remains, is Eraserhead good?  Is it a film that truly needs to be seen?  This is difficult to answer because there just isn’t anything like Eraserhead to compare it too.  Eraserhead is something all it’s own.  It is a bold statement by one of modern film’s most innovative and groundbreaking directors, and is a surrealistic masterpiece.  Eraserhead isn’t a film for most people, and only a small portion of film buffs will probably completely appreciate it.  Even the average David Lynch fan might find it a difficult film to watch.  Yet, for the study of cult cinema, independent film or avante garde entertainment Eraserhead is essential viewing.  Eraserhead continues to be a cornerstone in cult cinema which will baffle film scholars for decades to come.

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