David Lynch’s exploration of dreams, nightmares and the fears of fatherhood remains as startling an experience now as it ever was.
I’ve seen a lot of horror films in my time, but I can count the number of times that they scared me on my fingers… and only once was I seriously unnerved. That was when I watched Eraserhead for the first time, on the Palace VHS video that was available in our local rental store, back in the days when weird oddities sat side by side with the most commercial movies. I rented it and watched one summer afternoon, as inappropriate a time as you could imagine – though I at least drew the curtains and instinctively cranked up the volume. Eraserhead wasn’t a scary movie in the traditional sense, and it wasn’t so much what appeared onscreen that disturbed me – though that was certainly unsettling. No, it was the film’s soundtrack, that indistinct rumble that seemed almost perfectly pitched to put you on edge. It was a similar experience to one that I’d had a year earlier – again, strangely, on a hot summer afternoon – watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the first time, the sense of unease and tension created by the industrial musique concrete sound, but here the effect was even more intense because there were no overt moments of terror and shock in the visuals, just a sense of nightmarish weirdness that remains something that only David Lynch can create. Of course, at the time, ‘Lynchian’ wasn’t yet a thing – he was between The Elephant Man and Dune, and by all expectations en route to a very mainstream Hollywood career, his strange indie movie destined to be a distant memory.
In retrospect, we can see how Eraserhead has actually informed Lynch’s work continually ever since, most notably in Twin Peaks. Watching the film again on the new Criterion edition, you are struck not only by the obvious moments – the zig-zag floor of the apartment building lobby and the draped stage of the world inside the radiator, both of which bring to mind Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge – but also those moments of visual nightmare, bleak and indescribable points where we literally descend into the void, scenes that Twin Peaks series 3 duplicates and references not as imitation or even self-reference, but as evidence of a very singular idea. Lynch’s dreams are as dark as anything you could imagine, and he remains the only filmmaker to ever really capture the indistinct, random, enveloping horrors of the worst nightmares.
Since its release onto the midnight circuit in 1977, Eraserhead has become the stuff of legend, and there’s a lot said about it that perhaps speaks of the limited imagination of critics, the repetition of received knowledge, the need – even among some Lynch fans – to see the film as impossible to understand. Contrarian that I am, I’m going to argue that Eraserhead is actually a pretty straight forward narrative story for the most part. Henry Spencer is a young man who is on the outs with his girlfriend Mary – bitter and frustrated by daydreams about the seductive Woman Across the Hall, he is surprised to receive an invitation to dinner with Mary and her family, but nevertheless attends. Mary’s family are an odd lot – a comatose grandmother, an excitable father (who serves up man-made mini chickens – “they’re new!”) and an angry and intense mother. There’s a reason that Henry has been invited – Mary has had a child (“they’re still not sure it IS a baby!” wails Mary) and Henry is the father – and expected to do the right thing. Soon, Henry and Mary and married and living in his bed-sit with the child, who is indeed not a baby by most standards – a mutated creature wrapped in bandages, it’s one of cinema’s most unnerving creations (and we’ll come back to it in due course). Soon, Mary is driven to despair by the baby’s crying and Henry’s awkward cheerfulness, and goes home to mother; Henry is left in charge of the baby, which promptly becomes sick. The child exerts a malicious control over Henry’s life – screaming if he tries to leave the room, chortling maliciously when he sees his neighbour with another man. Henry’s dreams and nightmares become blurred with reality as he fantasises about a woman in the radiator, his seductive neighbour and his own death at the hands of the baby.
All this could easily be a relatively straight-forward horror film narrative. When you discover that Lynch was almost certainly projecting his own fears of becoming a parent (by all accounts seeing the birth of his daughter Jennifer less as a blessing than an alien intrusion into his life), Eraserhead seems less the narrative-free collection of surreal imagery that both detractors and admirers have claimed, and more a very coherent interpretation of someone’s fears – however irrational those fears might actually be. If Eraserhead is an exorcism of private terrors, then it actually makes perfect sense.
And as a horror film – we are all agreed that Eraserhead is a horror film, right? – then it is not without precedent. This film has one of the most unique atmospheres and visual styles of any film that you will ever see, even now, but it wasn’t made in a vacuum. There are moments here beyond the soundtrack that remind us of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, specifically the unsettlingly weird dinner scene (Texas Chain Saw also has a decrepit old relative who needs help doing what was once second nature); similarly, the film’s nightmare atmosphere is not unlike that of Daughter of Horror. How familiar Lynch was with either film is unknown, and unimportant – this is not imitation, but simply a case of feeding into the same terrors.
Even the look of the film is not as oddball as some have said – the wastelands that seem so otherworldly are not that far removed from the bombed-out locations seen in many a British, French or Italian film in the 1950s and 1960s – they only seem surreal and alien here because of how Lynch shoots them, his use of lighting, camera angles and noise creating unease in what is otherwise very ordinary. The same can be said of Henry’s room – a shithole, yes, but not especially weird in itself. However, Lynch’s way of making faltering electricity seem consciously malevolent and the ordinary feel unnatural is his unique talent, and it’s why this film feels continually unsettling.
But of course, Eraserhead is also very funny – though I do understand why some people don’t see the humour at all. The humour is deliberate, of course, Lynch being clearly aware of the absurdities of his nightmare world – after all, most nightmares sound outlandishly ludicrous when described to others. Jack Nance, at the centre of the film, is magnificent as Henry – a hapless dweeb in an ill-fitting suit with a pocket lined with pencils, and sporting a haircut that was outlandish while the film was shot but which barely seems unusual today, sometimes looking remarkably like Stan Laurel as he wanders stiffly through his world in a constant state of bafflement. Henry looks very odd, but otherwise, he’s decidedly not strange at all, and his bemusement at the people and situations he encounters makes him something of a stand-in for the viewer as the off-kilter story unfolds and strange characters are introduced. And everyone else is certainly eccentric – Mary’s unsettlingly enthusiastic father, her emotionally-edgy mother, the cartoonishly seductive femme fatale across the hall – but it all makes sense if we remember that we are seeing this through Henry’s eyes, where everyone and everything is an exaggerated version of reality. And then there’s the baby…
Famously, Lynch has remained cagey about just how the baby was created. It’s in his interests to do so, even if some of the rumours are outlandish and slanderous. Whatever the truth, this is one of cinema’s most unnervingly creepy creations. Pre-animatronics, just how was this very organic, distressingly real creature made and manipulated? The scenes involving the baby are pure horror – the exposed organs, the viral infection and the gushing blood all the more grotesque in black and white, while little moments like the eye filming over are so ickily real that you can almost believe that this really was a living creature. That the giant version of the baby seen during one nightmare is such a clunky puppet just makes the hyper-realism of the baby all the more unsettling.
There are people who hate Eraserhead – indeed, hate Lynch – because they think it is empty pretension and incoherent surrealism. Nothing I can say will change their minds, but I honestly believe that they could not be more wrong. There’s a lot of depth and meaning running throughout his films in general, and Eraserhead is not different. The fact that it is wrapped in surrealism doesn’t change that. More to the point – this is film as art, exploring the undiscovered possibilities of sound and vision, and that in itself is something to admire. I’ve seen plenty of genuinely empty movies that feed on their own pretensions and the fear of critics worried that they’ll seem dumb if they don’t ‘get it’ – the King’s New Clothes in cinematic form – but Lynch is never like this. For a start, his sense of surrealism is born of an actual artistic bent, not some forced attempt to be ‘weird’. And it is surrealism that drives the work forward rather than grinding it to a halt, taking the best of experimental cinema and wedding it to a more conventional narrative – you never get the impression that Lynch is being weird and obtuse in order to impress or to show off his creative and intellectual superiority. Eraserhead is probably his most experimental work (at least until the third season of Twin Peaks, which often feels very much like a career circle closing, with its nods and references to this film), but it is a lot more accessible than you might remember or have been led to believe. I’m not sure how much the film has overtly influenced horror cinema in subsequent years, though there’s no question that it has to a degree. But remarkably, almost half a century after it began production, it still feels unlike any other film ever made. It was a film out of time and place in 1977 (an interesting question: when exactly is Eraserhead set?) and so has never dated. And I suspect that the impact of this film on new unsuspecting viewers will be as dramatic as it was on me all those years ago.