David Lynch is one of my favorite directors of all time and a huge influence for me. He is the writer/director of films such as Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, and Blue Velvet to name a few. He is also the creator of the cult classic television show, Twin Peaks. Every great director has their start somewhere, and David Lynch’s was with his 1977 surrealist film, Eraserhead.
Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a quiet man who is trying to survive in an industrial wasteland where even a walk home from the grocery store is dangerous. Life for Henry gets even more complicated when his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) gives birth to his mutant child, born with a small head, a pencil-like neck, and no arms or legs. Night after night, Henry is forced to listen to this baby cry nonstop, with only the Woman in the Radiator (Laurel Near) to give him comfort through song and the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Ann Roberts) to satisfy his sexual fantasies.
I knew that this was going to be a strange movie because of my past experience with the twisted stories of David Lynch. Everything I’ve seen by him so far is far from normal, but Eraserhead is so distanced from reality that I was left speechless. The best way I can describe this movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it is that it is the equivalent of a live action nightmare. Things happen that aren’t explained, but are horrifying. Images are warped to the point of being terrifying. And, of course, darkness hides our fears leaving the worst to our imaginations.
An interesting about the filming of Eraserhead was that it was done periodically over the course of five years due to funding and technical issues. There is one scene that I need to look for next time I watch it where Jack Nance opens the door and you can actually see how he aged when the door opens. I also read that Nance kept his hair the same for those 5 years. Not so easy with hair like that.
Back to the aesthetics of the movie, I’d like to talk about a major part of this movie: the lighting. A lot of the cinematography is done in the noir style, filling the screen with intense whites and blacks. The lighting is rarely soft, with hard light the accentuates what the audience should be looking at or to reveal every detail of a subject. This works well for the movie, as I said before, by hiding a lot of what is seemingly frightening. There is one scene in particular at the end where the lights are flickering on and off, and what we are trying to see in truly unbelievable.
Almost, if not equally, as important is the sound design. There isn’t a whole lot of talking in this film, so the sound has to be done right in order to keep the viewer interested. Luckily, Lynch has created a haunting ambient soundtrack that is guaranteed to send shivers down spines. It’s hard to comment on the acting since there isn’t much talking and the actions aren’t done in the silent era kind of way, but more downplayed. I can say that Nance is perfect for Henry, and plays him with both love and fear.
Surrealism isn’t for everyone which is totally understandable. Many people have given their interpretations, but David Lynch says he hasn’t heard a correct one yet. I, personally, view it as a growing fear against parenthood, especially when unexpected and unprepared, but there is so much more to this movie than that. That being said, this Eraserhead requires many, many viewings before (if) it can be understood. This is one of my new favorite movies and, to anyone brave enough, I recommend it.