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REVIEW – Eraserhead

Directed by: David Lynch
Produced by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch
Edited by: David Lynch
Cinematography by: Frederick Elmes, Herbert Cardwell
Music by: David Lynch, Fats Waller, Peter Ivers
Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Judith Anna Roberts, Laurel Near, Jeanne Bates, Allen Joseph, Jack Fisk
Year: 1977

 

Neither having seen The Elephant Man and Dune years prior nor having mere knowledge of just how bizarre David Lynch could get with his body of work could not have prepared me for my first time, firsthand viewing of his debut film Eraserhead this past week. Growing up a budding film fan, this cult classic was always on my radar in some form, whether due to its intriguing title that suggested to my younger self that the film was a dark, artsy slasher film in the tradition of Friday the 13th (I was not aware of the release timeline then) or because of my frequent encounter with that instantly recognizable shot of star Jack Nance staring back at me within a cloud of illuminated dust as I scavenged through movie posters I knew I would never actually end up buying. The movie’s reputation also preceded itself in discussions of film, primarily online, and yet, somehow, I still managed to avoid any spoilers and even major plot details of the film until actually seeing it myself. And, somehow, even afterward, while I know that what I saw was called Eraserhead, I’m still not entirely certain what the hell I saw.

“Surreal” is almost an understatement when describing a film like this, but if you distill it down to its basics, you can actually make a basic enough outline that sounds downright ordinary. Henry Spencer is the film’s protagonist, a fairly nondescript everyman who goes about his daily routine while living in a rather destitute part of town. One day, he receives a surprise invite to meet and have dinner with his girlfriend Mary’s parents. However, after a lot of awkward chitchat, it’s soon revealed that her parents know of their daughter’s pregnancy, and the mother tells the two of them that they must marry to make the situation right. They do, but the new arrangement puts a strain on Henry, who has trouble coping with sharing his bed and one-room apartment with Mary and their special needs child, and Mary can’t seem to take it much further, either. How will Henry cope with his new lot in life, and what will he do next?

In more conventional hands, this could easily still make for a decent indie drama, a quiet character study about a man who finds himself at an impasse and must make a decision soon in order to move on with his life and let others do the same. There would either be beautifully lit and decorated sets to contrast with the morose nature of the plot and conflict, or the camera could be handheld and gritty to emphasize the characters’ grim outlooks. Either way, critics could praise the film using platitudes like “honest,” “true,” and “moving” and hail its stars as being “a revelation.” In David Lynch’s hands, though? It’s all a fever dream nightmare set in an industrialized wasteland, where anything and everything is expressly purposed to disturb, oppress, or inspire dread in those who bear witness to their existence.

Throughout the film, Henry is confronted with the temptation of sex and lust, beginning with the film opening on what I can only interpret as the film’s representation of the baby’s conception – a large spermatozoon emerging from Henry’s mouth, into a void, and being guided into a pool of water by a diseased man who lives in the void of space. Like many young men, Henry seems to be rather careless with where he spreads his… tentacle monsters… and when the time comes to face the consequences, this everyman then also becomes tempted by the big what-ifs. What if he were with another woman instead? What if he had steered clear of this path in the first place? What if he actually tended to the seeds that had been planted earlier in his life so that he could have a more fruitful one now (a question quite literally represented by the mounds of dirt and dead plants sitting around Henry’s apartment)? What if the pregnancy had been terminated? What if the baby were to die? What if the deformed child isn’t even human at all? What if he were to kill himself just to escape it all? If he did, would he find himself in a warmer, better place, greeted by a friendly face? Or would the afterlife be nothing but a continuation of this endless and depressing void in which he’s already living? His outward apathy, already fuelling Mary’s frustration, belies his inner anxiety, which the film seems to be representing more literally to the audience through its undoubtedly bizarre imagery, oppressive lighting, and the incessant and ever present drone of muffled machinery.

If I had to pick one area where the horror in Eraserhead comes from, it would be that of the mundane challenges in life. Seemingly small matters like making idle chitchat and meeting new people become exercises in restraining oneself from doing something like screaming from the anxiety of coming up with an answer about the nature of your job and whether you enjoy it, ensuring that you are polite and not just rambling on, and bottling up any reservations about eating whatever the hell that strange dish is they’re serving to you for dinner. Regardless of whether or not these fears are just in Henry’s head or not, the film nonetheless projects them onto viewers, who can all at least connect what we see on screen with our own social and personal anxieties. With that being said, however, one can only imagine the trajectory the film will take with the more serious expectations that come with marriage and fatherhood. And, even then, I’m not certain anyone but David Lynch could have dreamed of how to portray this as effectively and creepily as what Henry (and the audience) is forced to endure.

At least, that is my interpretation of the film, but there has been plenty already written about the film, its themes, and what it all means to those of us left dumbfounded in the wake of seeing this film. What I can say for sure, however, is that Eraserhead may be the one film in a long time that has surpassed expectations I had based on its reputation. I may not feel as though I know everything about it just after one viewing, but I have my ideas, and I was left not just intrigued, but… enlightened by the experience, maybe? I don’t know. It’s really hard to say with this film, but I definitely… experienced it. It’s a haunting, oppressive film and yet it’s also a distinct and original collection of sights and sounds to behold. And I am, at the very least, pleased to have finally seen it myself after all these years of wondering, and I may very well watch it again sometime later, when I have regained some of my pre-viewing sanity.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 5 / 5

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