Eraserhead (1976)

28 Oct

I was wholly unprepared for the sheer beauty of "Eraserhead." Even at its most horrific, it's jaw-dropping.

In which I attempt to describe my experience of seeing “Eraserhead” for the first time with the full knowledge that very few people will agree with my opinions and might, in fact, believe me crazy after seeing this film for themselves unless they have already seen it, in which case they will either understand what I mean or will definitely think I’m crazy.

I recently had dinner with friends and explained I was unsure of how to go about writing this review. “Well, what was it about?” they asked. I realized then it was pointless to approach from that angle. Trying to assign cinematic conventions like narrative to this film is fairly ridiculous. A loose plot exists, but the story is merely a prop for this film to center itself around. Discussion of what each character and element represents makes for interesting speculation, but knowing exactly what this work means to its creator is, I think, not the point.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see “Eraserhead” when it was first released. As a longtime admirer of David Lynch’s work, I have the benefit of familiarity with his themes and stylistic tendencies. I knew from my previous experiences that I was in for something genuinely unlike other movies, something probably profoundly and unexpectedly moving, something unnaturally menacing, and something dream-like and absurd. But his first audiences, they would have had none of this knowledge. Whatever they thought they were walking into, whether “Eraserhead” was billed as experimental, or an art film, or a horror flick, they would’ve been shocked.

I can't stop thinking about the absurd horror of the dinner sequence.

In what would later become an overarching theme for Lynch, he explores in this work the sense that just underneath or just outside the boundaries of our nice, safe lives, the bizarre lurks. Sometimes it manifests itself as shocking violence, sometimes as monstrosities, sometimes as the shattering of social mores. The horrifically deformed “baby” in “Eraserhead” is the most literal manifestation of this idea, but the film is rife with instances of the strange intruding on main character Henry Spencer’s (Jack Nance, as John Nance) life. For me, the film’s most striking example is its macabre dinner table sequence, culminating with Mrs. X’s attempt to passionately kiss Henry mere seconds before revealing he has fathered a child with her daughter. The sequence chronicles the utter breakdown of the traditional meet-the-parents dinner beginning with girlfriend Mary X’s (Charlotte Stewart) admonition that Henry is late, although no time was specified in his dinner invitation.

She eventually allows him to come inside and meet her mother, Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates), and her father, Mr. X (Allen Joseph). The conversation is stilted and odd, with subjects melting into each other with little or no segue. The camera follows Mrs. X into the kitchen where an old woman (Jean Lange) is propped in a chair. She seems incapable of movement. Mrs. X wraps her arms around the old woman and manipulates the woman’s hands into tossing a salad, then she places a lit cigarette into the old woman’s mouth, and leaves the kitchen. We never see the old woman again. At the table, Mr. X beseeches Henry to carve the miniature chickens. Henry reluctantly agrees, but the tiny bird starts pumping blood, like a human heart, as soon as it’s cut into. Perhaps not believing what he’s seeing, Henry keeps carving until his dinner companions jump up from the table in disgust. The chicken remains on Henry’s plate, seeping blood. Mrs. X sternly questions him, demanding to know if he and Mary have had sexual intercourse. Henry deflects her questions by asserting that it’s none of her business, but Mrs. X is not to be appeased. “There’s a baby,” she says. “It was premature, but it can come home as soon as you’re married.” Henry seems confused, and begins to speak. “A baby? But that’s im…” He never finishes his thought.

Of all the oddities that both precede and follow this sequence, I found this to be the most striking. As a filmmaker, Lynch is perhaps unparalleled in his ability to elicit strong emotional responses to his films. His movies are frequently described as scary, although they contain few overt horror elements. Unsettling is perhaps the better term. I would wager that the dinner sequence becomes unsettling at a different point for everyone. For me, it was when Mrs. X helps the old woman to toss the salad. For others, that point of unease may come earlier or later, but at that point, the scene quickly ramps up from awkward to intensely bizarre, almost menacing. Mrs. X’s words, “There’s a baby,” are accusatory, and they fill us with dread. We know, instantly, there is something she’s hiding. When the camera cuts away after Henry numbly agrees to wed Mary, we are frightened of this child before it even appears onscreen.

I'm not sure what sort of special effects magic was used to create this baby. I suspect it's possible this is an actual alien, like Roswell crash survivor alien.

It’s a film which never ceases to inspire emotion. Lynch twists our fear of the baby into pity for it. He manipulates our concern for Henry into repulsion, then wins us back to Henry’s side again. We feel afraid, we feel relieved, we feel unexplainably joyful. The strength of Lynch’s artistry is such that it doesn’t matter if we understand what’s happening; as the film washes over us — Lynch’s gorgeous black-and-white photography, the avant-garde soundtrack, the inexplicable imagery — we sense rather than know what this film is. And what I sensed was astounding. Four stars out of four.

Eraserhead“: UR (Content is appropriate only for an adult audience. Starring Jack Nance (as John Nance), Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Roberts, Laurel Near, V. Phipps-Wilson, Jack Fisk, Jean Lange, Thomas Coulson, John Monez, Darwin Joston, T. Max Graham (as Neil Moran), and Hal Landon Jr. Written and directed by David Lynch. Cinematography by Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. Film editing, art direction, original music and production design by David Lynch. Special effects by Frederick Elmes and David Lynch.

One Response to “Eraserhead (1976)”


  1. 31 Nights of Horror: Final thoughts (2010) « Rhanda watches -

    […] low end than the high end. There were two four-star reviews: “The Innocents” and “Eraserhead.” There was one zero-star review — “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.” There […]

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