Eraserhead is best seen, not described. And yet, in the fifteen years since first seeing David Lynch’s first feature film, thanks to a tape from a local rental place, I’ve tried to do just that over and over again for the sake of all those who haven’t yet seen it. The fact that it was so difficult to just find the film in the first place only made it all the more frustrating; a prospective audience could hear my words, but not learn for themselves what I meant. The VHS was hopelessly out of print, a rare Japanese LaserDisc pressing changed hands for ungodly sums of money, and the movie itself was so dark and low-contrast that even first-generation bootlegs were unwatchable. The only way to really see the movie was to go watch it in a theater, whenever a local cinema had a print of it. My father and I were lucky enough to catch it in a downtown New York art-house that has since closed due to spiraling rents and declining audiences. The battered and splicy condition of the print—and the puddles of water on the theater floor—made the film all the more eerie.
Now that Eraserhead has been finally reissued in director-sanctioned DVD and Blu-ray Disc editions, I don’t feel bad about urging people to see a movie that has been a massive cultural influence for the better part of three decades. Almost every horror/fantasy film of ambition made since the 1980s—Pi; The Shining; Begotten; Clean, Shaven—has been influenced by Eraserhead, and not in terms of its plot or themes but in terms of its feel. As many other people have said, it’s the closest thing anyone has yet achieved to putting a nightmare on film—not just in terms of the darkness and the sensations of dread, but also the disconnected logic and leaps of fantasy that govern dreams as a whole. Most horror films scare us with images of corpses or innards; Eraserhead gives us nothing short of the void itself.
That’s in fact where the film opens, in a kind of astral limbo that gives rise to Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a nerdish man with a shock of ugly black hair, tramping home to his squalid little apartment. Henry’s neighborhood seems to be made out of crumbling brickwork, broken pipes and mud; his building is a tangle of peeling plaster and exposed electrical wiring. The only bright spot in Henry’s existence is a phantasmagorical woman who appears to him in his radiator (she’s even credited as “The Lady in the Radiator”), and sings “In heaven, everything is fine”—which is of course no comfort to Henry, stuck here in his industrial hell with (presumably) everyone else.
We learn about Henry by degrees: for one, he has a girlfriend, Mary (credit as “Mary X”). Henry pays her family a visit in a scene that plays like a grotesque, Harold Pinter-esque satire of such things. Apparently Mary is now pregnant, and her family insists that they get married as soon as possible. The baby is a grotesque abomination, like one of the monsters in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights: its crying keeps them both awake at night, it spits food back in their faces, it’s frail and unhealthy. When Mary finally leaves in despair, what little stability Henry has left disintegrates, and he plunges into a full-on nightmare that is even more all-enveloping than everything that came before.
By themselves, the individual scenes in the film don’t make sense, but as they go on they add up and create the movie’s overall mood. The perpetually baffled and disconnected Henry watches in dismay as the chicken on his plate squirms and oozes black ichor; when he commits adultery with a neighbor across the hall, he and the other woman sink into a pit of steaming ooze in the middle of the bed. A fair part of the movie’s latter half is a nightmare within the nightmare which goes at least part of the way towards explaining the title—but, again, an explanation would be beside the point. If the movie is a reflection of the inside of Henry’s mind, where a great many things are unsettled and nothing is certain, then it’s only consistent that a good deal is simply presented and not explained.
Eraserhead grew out of Lynch’s gloomy experiences in Philadelphia while attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The industrial murk that enveloped the Montana-born-and-bred Lynch became the equally dank and miserable atmosphere surrounding Henry Spencer’s apartment, and he also transposed in the anxiety he felt there while his wife was pregnant with their first child. After securing admission to the Centre for Advanced Film Studies in Los Angeles based on his short film The Grandmother, he started to work on a film called Gardenback (which Lynch has described as being “about adultery”), but got frustrated with the story and wanted to quit. The teachers were so impressed with Lynch, however, that they begged him to stay on and work on the other idea he’d been slowly getting more interested in: Eraserhead.
Lynch’s script for Eraserhead was a mere 21-page outline, but the AFI awarded him a $2,200 grant to film it and he built most of the sets in the basement of the AFI buildings and in a disused farmhouse outside of Los Angeles. He had talented people working with him, all of whom lent something unmistakeable to the film. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes picked up when Herbert Cardwell inexplicably died during production, but had worked with Lynch before on the short film The Amputee; he somehow managed to steep the whole movie in darkness without making it completely disappear. There are scenes where the lighting is so uniformly gloomy that it feels like the camera has stopped picking up light and is functioning more like a bat’s radar. We see shapes and surfaces and contours, not objects and people (except for their faces, which seem to glow unnaturally).
Likewise, the film’s sound track was both crucial and influential, and Lynch worked with Alan Splet (another former collaborator) to build a soundtrack that exists as one giant seamless, enveloping wall of noise from the beginning of the film to the end. Rather than use synthesizers, Splet used heavily-processed location recordings and stock audio, in something of the same manner that Lustmørd (Brian Williams) did for both his own albums and movie soundtracks. Splet later collaborated with Lynch on many other films, and in everything from The Elephant Man to Blue Velvet there are similar sound designs that enfold the audience. IRS Records even released a condensed version of the soundtrack, including the Fats Waller organ tunes that occasionally emerge from the noisy murk. Their jocularity just makes the rest of the movie seem all the more despairing.
Lynch’s most infamous bit of design for the film was the baby, a creation he was so secretive about that he refused to even allow the projectionist screening the rushes to see how it had been created or manipulated. My predominant theory is that it was an embalmed calf embryo with puppeteer’s armatures implanted in it, but it doesn’t look like a special effect; it has an eerie organic quality to it that Lynch conferred on the film as a whole, too. Eraserhead also presages imagery in other Lynch films: The furniture and décor for the apartment bring to mind the ugly furnishings in Dorothy Vallens’s room in Blue Velvet; the little wormlike monster baby is reminiscent of the horribly mutated, no-longer-human Guild Navigators from Dune.
Finishing the film became an ordeal. Money ran out again and again, and the sets were demolished and rebuilt from scratch at one point when the AFI had to make room for other projects. It took a total of five years, working on nights and weekends, and with everyone from Sissy Spacek (wife of Lynch’s childhood friend, production designer Jack Fisk) chipping in to complete the film. Lynch even got a paper route delivering The Wall Street Journal as a source of funds; during a given night's filming, he would have to stop at one point and run out for an hour or so to make the deliveries. When finished it attracted the eye of cult-movie distributor Ben Barenholtz, who booked it into midnight screenings on college campuses and watched in amazement as it ran for months on end.
The only other film I feel comfortable comparing directly to Eraserhead is Koyaanisqatsi. Both movies were milestones of independent filmmaking, showing what could be done creatively outside the studio system; both movies created or at least popularized a vocabulary of images that has been reused enormously and exhaustively by others; both gestated for years on end in the hands of their creators; both were and are unique. And, most of all, both remain unparalleled in their power to show an audience something genuinely new and different.
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