Review: Eraserhead

Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, is not so much a scary horror movie as it is an all-consuming series of shape-shifting dark moods and nightmarish vignettes that are somehow interrelated. For your ultimate Halloween film festival, it will either pull you in, creeping and freaking you out, or it may make you laugh. Or both! While it’s not a comedy, Eraserhead certainly has its moments of levity, which help to make it an engaging and unique cinematic experience (usually best viewed late at night in a fully darkened room!).

 

Simultaneously spooky and spectacular, Eraserhead is a beautiful film to look at, a labor of love that took many years to make while Lynch was struggling as a first-time filmmaker, bootstrapping its production and supplementing his income managing a 

paper route. Every shot, every actor’s movement, and every line of dialogue was painstakingly planned out and executed. Filmed in black & white like the best of film noir and silents, lighting plays a big role in creating the look and feel of this mesmerizing movie.

 

I first saw Eraserhead when I was in college in the early 1980s on a double bill with Tod Browning’s more unsettling 1932 career-killer, Freaks. The “story,” I was told beforehand, was that the movie basically proceeds like a series of bad dreams. I found that to be simple sage guidance that enabled me to enjoy and embrace the film fully early on.

 

Lynch himself has never fully explained what it is about—

ERASERHEAD AT A GLANCE

The film that pretty much started the whole “dark & creepy” thing receives the typically excellent Criterion treatment, thanks mainly to a new, David Lynch-approved 4K transfer.

 

PICTURE
The often disturbing imagery has gone through an extensive digital cleanup, and can be better appreciated thanks to a Lynch-supplied calibration drill.

there are interviews in the Criterion-edition bonus features where you can see him steadfastly and calmly refusing to define the movie for querying reporters. He would rather leave the interpretation to the viewer, making it an individual experience.

 

In a way, Eraserhead is akin to an adult version of the classic childhood fear of the boogeyman in the closet—a concept it explores exponentially within the context of a unique group of characters living within a very distinct, dark universe. They all reside in an industrial area where the sound and lighting is as important and impactful as the shocking images. 

 

The film revolves around the hapless Henry, who—beyond having an instantly iconic hairdo and image that is one part Bride of Frankenstein, one part goth-punk/new-wave outsider, and one part techie uber-nerd—never seems to have anything go quite right for him.

 

Along the way, you meet his weird (likely prostitute) neighbor across the hall and his girlfriend Mary, her disturbing parents, and her comatose cigarette-smoking grandmother (who helps mix the dinner salad!). Other entities such as “The Man in the Planet” and “The Lady in the Radiator” may or may not be part of Henry’s reality. They may be a dream within his dream. Again, that is for you to decide . . .

 

Eventually, you meet “The Baby,” one of the more disturbing images in cinema—simultaneously horrifying and sweetly innocent. Humor raises its strange head at times like these as Henry muddles along with the twisted turns of his life. When Mary leaves him, she blames him for this strange creature. (She cries at one point, “We’re still not sure it is a baby”). Seriously, it is one of the creepiest, most unsettling images you’ll ever see as it looks incomplete. Imagine if E.T. had a prematurely-born legless sibling, and you get the idea of where this is going.

 

The pacing is slow and eerily quiet—the only sounds pretty much are the ever-present murmuring sturm und drang of the industrial complex in which Henry’s universe exists. Dark sounds ebb and flow with the strange rhythm of his life. Occasionally, you’ll hear deeply echo-chambered recordings of Fats Waller playing a pipe organ (Henry has an old Victrola in his claustrophobic studio apartment) adding an old-time horror-film aesthetic.

 

The one vocal musical moment breaking up the whirr of the film happens when Henry is lying on his bed staring into the radiator in front of him. His attention zooms into the heart of the steaming old metal structure to reveal a stage where we are treated to a performance by a strange lady who looks like a deformed cousin to Marilyn Monroe. “The Lady in the Radiator” has bad skin, wears severe makeup that would make Bette Davis’ Jane Hudson (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) envious, and sports haunting hamster cheeks that would make Dizzy Gillespie run from the room screaming. 

 

Accompanied only by a distant moody organ, she sings the haunting “In Heaven Everything is Fine” (which some of you alt-rockers out there might recognize from The Pixies’ cover of it).  She also does a sort of dark slow-dance while gleefully squishing what look like either giant sperm cells or umbilical cords or—more likely—the recurring worm-fetus-like visions of The Baby, all seemingly falling from the heavens above.

 

The new Criterion edition of Eraserhead, based on a 4K transfer of the original camera negative, was supervised and approved by Lynch. The look and feel of the movie is more powerful than ever. All of the digital cleanup—compensating for “thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, jitter, and shrinkage”—was performed manually, according to the detailed booklet included with the Blu-ray Disc. A new stereo soundtrack was created from the original mono mix stems.

 

Visually, Eraserhead is a dark film—so dark in fact that Lynch has provided reference images in the bonus features, with step by step onscreen instructions, so you can make sure your TV is properly calibrated.

 

Some of the other bonus materials may give you additional spooks and thrills. Lynch’s original short films (dating back as early as 1967)—including The Alphabet, The Grandmother, Six Men Get Sick, The Amputee, and Premonitions Following an Evil Deed—are fascinating and disturbing. The Grandmother especially has some super-creepy imagery that must be seen to be appreciated—particularly the wire-pulled faces of the child’s abusive parents as barking attack dogs. Lynch provides explanations of what these shorts are roughly about (or at least trying to accomplish), which helps the viewer take a step back and watch these for the art films they are. Creepy for sure, but artistic visions nonetheless.

 

And that really sums up the brilliance of Eraserhead. In one fully realized film, Lynch combined nightmarish dreams with art-school sensibilities to craft a timeless movie that is as intellectually challenging as it is freaky, funny, and frightening. It may make you laugh. It may give you goosebumps and nightmares.

 

For Halloween 2020, what more can you ask for?

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T. He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for publications including Mix, Sound & Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

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