“I felt Eraserhead, I didn’t think it.”
– David Lynch
How does one even begin to talk about Eraserhead? David Lynch‘s 1977 feature debut is a work of pure and utter madness, a film so brilliant and unique it defies all traditional characterization. To those familiar with the seminal American auteur, Eraserhead represents one of the most undiluted examples of his surreal modus operandi. Stuck in production for years and functioning only on a shoestring budget provided by the American Film Institute, it’s easy to forget how much of a miracle it is that Eraserhead ever came to fruition. Thankfully it did, and even over forty years later its perverse spectacle of body horror and expressionism continues to capture the eyes of cinephiles around the world.
Eraserhead’s plot, if it can even be said to have one, is so simple that the film’s original script was only twenty-one pages long (indeed, part of the reason the AFI agreed to fund the film for $10,000 was because they assumed it was a short). Henry (Jack Nance) is a quiet man with an impressively large head of hair. He lives alone in a tiny studio apartment whose windows look out only at a brick wall, and his daily activities are as mysterious as the oppressive industrial hellscape in which he lives. He is invited to have dinner with the family of his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart), who after an increasingly surreal sit-down – which involves bleeding artificial chickens and randomly convulsing family members – tearfully informs him that she has given birth to his deformed son. In an effort to minimize his embarrassment, Henry reluctantly agrees to get married and move in with Mary, and the rest of the film follows their awkward engagement with horror and amusement alike.
One of the most immediately striking aspects of Eraserhead’s technical craft is its remarkably layered sound design, which haunts the mind even years after viewing. Lynch oversaw a great deal of the film’s aural texture himself, which eerily interweaves low frequency hums with a variety of industrial ambient noises. Original diegetic music accompanies several scenes as well, including the memorably creepy ‘In Heaven’ sequence, performed by a lady with deformed clay cheeks that lives within Henry’s radiator. Lynch’s meticulous attention to detail on the film’s soundtrack works exceptionally well at casting a terrifying aura over the film’s auditory landscape, just as crucial to its steady hypnotic dread as its stark black-and-white photography and its hopelessly bleak production design.
Over the years, many have examined and dissected Eraserhead’s pervasive sexual imagery and themes of parental angst. From the sperm-like worm Henry carefully places into his beside wardrobe at night to the seemingly endless (real) umbilical cords he pulls out of his bed in one scene, it’s abundantly clear that David Lynch’s anxieties about becoming a father are echoed in Henry’s bizarre life. The “baby” itself is a magnificent and shockingly lifelike work of production design, a true thing of nightmares even before Henry decides to cut it open. Equally revolting and pitiful, it’s a creature that seems to exist solely to irritate and disgust (a thought that’s probably crossed every parent’s mind in momentary frustration with their infant). It cries obnoxiously all night, and is so self-aware that it chuckles maniacally when Henry is cuckolded by his attractive neighbor – an expression, perhaps, of Henry’s fears of personal and sexual inadequacy emerging from fathering such a vile monster. Henry likely sees and fears the worst aspects of himself reflected in the beady, insect-like eyes of his son, a notion that’s lent further credit by the numerous times his own head is briefly replaced by that of his child.
As interesting as these interpretations of the film usually are, I must admit that I always find such literal readings of Lynch’s work problematic, especially in the case of Eraserhead. Applying a certain level of rational analysis to the film can yield a deeper personal understanding to its various subtexts, but in no way do I mean to imply that these insights are “the point”. Lynch has long resisted talking about the interpretations of his films for a reason, likely because he has always held a deep and intrinsic understanding of the separation between artist and audience. His work means something radically different to him than it does to us, and that’s not just inevitable, it’s healthy. His films – like all true works of art – are not puzzles to be decoded, nor are they sophisticated math equations to be solved. They are the results of a singular artistic mind, driven only by its emotional logic to commit dreams to celluloid. Although it’s only David Lynch’s first of several masterpieces, Eraserhead remains one of the strangest, funniest, and most haunting nightmares ever captured on film. It’s a monumental work of art, and its madness will certainly live on for eternity.