by David Lynch
What would you say makes a horror film great? Does it need a lot of gore like Saw or A Nightmare on Elm Street? Does it need evil supernatural beings like in a vampire flick? Or does it simply need to affect you psychologically, making you feel the kind of dread one feels whilst having a terrifying dream, like Eraserhead? My vote goes to the latter.
David Lynch’s debut film Eraserhead has a main character who seems to be as lost, confused and terrified as the film’s audience. The bizarre world he inhabits is the kind that nightmares are composed of. What does this film mean? What is it about? What inspired the nightmare? We do not know the answer to this and we may never know.
Throughout Eraserhead we follow a man named Henry Spencer, portrayed with skill by Jack Nance; an intro shows him floating in space. A disfigured man, The Man In The Planet (Jack Fisk, production designer of such projects as The Tree of Life) is observing him while pulling on levers. Henry vomits up a sperm-like… thing that crashes into a puddle on a nearby planet. A metaphor for impregnation, presumably.
After returning to Earth (or reality) and walking homeward in a Chaplin-esque comical sequence, we eventually see him return to his lonely apartment, where The Beautiful Girl Across The Hall (Judith Roberts) informs him that he is invited to dinner at the house of his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). When he arrives at the X family household, Mary’s father (Allen Joseph) is cooking miniature chickens that ooze blood when you touch them with your fork. In fact it almost looks as though they’re giving birth. After a strange dinner scene, Henry is confronted by Mary’s mother (Jeanne Bates) who suspects that he is the father of the mutated, alien-looking infant that Mary supposedly gave birth to.
Mary moves to Henry’s apartment together with the deformed baby. It screams every night, causing Mary to eventually go back home to her house and leave Henry alone with the child. Henry, meanwhile, sees many surreal things; a lady with swollen cheeks (Laurel Near) sings to him from his radiator, more sperm-like creatures appear to him, he dreams that he looses his head which is then used to make erasers in a pencil-factory, and The Beautiful Woman Across The Hall invites him to sex. The surreal atmosphere makes all of this immensely (and memorably) disturbing. It is, by nature, a film of misery and uncomfortableness. Most of the few characters who crack a smile are displayed as not being quite trustworthy.
What’s admirable about David Lynch is the way he with great skill and success creates a dark and nightmarish tone, making the viewer feel as though they are truly having a horrid dream where something always seems off. Eraserhead was his first film, as well as one of his finest moments. It took him some time of struggling to finish the production, but in the end – the year, I believe, was 1976 – his film was completed. Jack Nance kept his haircut through it all.
In 2010, I watched it. I still remember how frightened I felt during certain scenes involving Henry’s (incredibly well-made) mutant child, particularly the one at the end where he can bear no more. I am very rarely scared by horror films. Eraserhead is one of the only ones that genuinely did. The tone, the imagery, the absurd ways the characters act; it is all lovely yet uncomfortable at the same time.
I couldn’t tell you what the film is actually about, but my theory is that it involves the difficulties of becoming a parent, which Lynch was actually about to face when making the film. Most of the symbolism indicates at least something like that. But who really knows, and do we honestly need to know? Isn’t the film more fascinating when it mystifies you and you don’t understand what it tries to say? Y’know, like a dream?
This really is a great movie – not only because of its delicate cinematography, precise editing, impressive effects or the effectively spooky and unique sound design. When I engage in a conversation about scary films, I am always sure to bring up Eraserhead as a splendid example of a movie that fills one with both curiosity and fear as one watches; a movie that isolates you from the real world; a movie that transports one into what feels like a hostile dreamland; a movie that makes one feel scared and alone; a movie that proves how great David Lynch is. When the credits rolled, I felt that the bad dream was over, and I awoke.
“In Heaven, everything is fine.” – The Lady In The Radiator.