Directed by: David Lynch
Premise: Henry (John Nance) discovers that his girlfriend (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth to an inhuman creature. The couple tries to start a life together but Henry struggles to adjust to fatherhood and the infant creature’s incessant wailing drives them to madness.
What Works: Over the past forty years, David Lynch has made a name for himself as one of the most unique filmmakers working in American cinema. His movies are frequently dark and sexual and sometimes feature deliberately confusing stories that manipulate our perception of reality. Lynch’s first feature film was 1977’s Eraserhead and it remains one of the filmmaker’s most popular projects and one of his most challenging. The movie is shot in black and white and takes place in an industrial fantasy world where Henry, played by John Nance, works in a factory. Henry is on vacation when he discovers that the woman he has been seeing has given birth to a lizard-like creature whose body is held together with bandages. Henry then tries to assume the role of husband and father but the stress of family life with a newborn takes its toll. Eraserhead portended much of Lynch’s style but in some ways it is a more accessible film than his later work. Unlike Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, this film has a more-or-less straightforward linear narrative and its metaphors are a bit more obvious. Eraserhead is—in large part—about a man’s fear of becoming a father. One of the distinguishing qualities of Eraserhead is how recognizable it is; some of Lynch’s other work is highly abstract and deliberately illogical. That’s true of some scenes in Eraserhead, especially the elaborate dream sequences, but much of the movie is rooted in fears and scenarios that are familiar. Henry is invited to join his girlfriend and her parents for dinner and the movie taps into the awkwardness of meeting another family. The baby’s nighttime cries and Henry and his girlfriend’s sleepless nights are relatable and everyday frustrations. Lynch presents those familiar human experiences in a surrealistic style that makes the scenarios fresh and new but also unsettling. The domestic theme of Eraserhead is not the only idea at work in this film. There is quite a lot going on within its eighty-nine minute running time. The setting of Eraserhead is a bleak and barren wasteland in which Henry is a factory worker and the movie emphasizes biological functions, especially sexual reproduction. These two ideas are related. The images of industrial production parallel other images of biological reproduction and the movie suggests that life in a modern manufacturing culture has mutated into something perverse, hence the monstrous inhuman baby. In many respects, Eraserhead is a specific product of the Baby Boomer generation. The domestic drama of Henry and his family is a bit like an episode of Leave It to Beaver seen through a funhouse mirror and it upends the expectations of prosperity and comfort of the post-war industrial society. Eraserhead has been called disturbing and in some ways it is but not because of sadistic violence; this movie, perhaps better than any other, captures and induces anxiety. The film is shot in black and white in a way that picks up the dirty, wet, and grimy texture of the art direction. The special effects, which are quite impressive given the movie’s small budget, are convincing and the look of the movie is both surreal and organic. Equally important is the soundtrack. The audio of Eraserhead is mostly ambient sound accompanied by early twentieth century jazz tunes by Fats Waller. The soundtrack complements the visuals and makes the movie distressing and uncomfortable. Topping off Eraserhead’s style is its absurd sense of humor. These elements coalesce into a movie experience that is simultaneously grotesque and beautiful and that discord makes the movie both disturbing and profound.
What Doesn’t: Anyone who is familiar with David Lynch’s other works will know whether or not Eraserhead is for them. Lynch is a filmmaker with a particular style and viewers either respond to it or they don’t. Eraserhead is an art film in the true sense of the term; the filmmakers are less concerned with entertaining the audience or telling a comfortable and recognizable story than they are with experimenting with the form, manipulating cinematic techniques, and addressing abstract ideas. Eraserhead is not a film to be watched casually. It demands that viewers watch closely and think about the imagery in a way that we aren’t accustomed to in a mainstream feature film. It’s not weird for its own sake; there is a point to all this. But Eraserhead is also a slow moving picture that isn’t always pleasant to watch.
DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition includes featurettes, trailers, short films, interviews, and a booklet.
Bottom Line: Eraserhead is not a movie for everyone but it is an important piece of American cinema. It’s the movie that introduced David Lynch to the world and it’s a terrifically crafted piece of surrealism.
Episode: #49 (April 24, 2005); Revised #667 (October 1, 2017)