Eraserhead is David Lynch’s first feature film, the film that kick started his cinematic career and showed everyone his artistic talents. However, Eraserhead is also David Lynch’s most bizarre, most artistically surreal and most disturbingly uncomfortable film to date. Eraserhead is a film that goes beyond the limitations of surreal cinema in order to present a viewing experience that’s shocking, nightmarish, but ultimately unforgettable. Over the years, Eraserhead has had a spectacular impact on horror cinema, and many films to this day cite Eraserhead as a large influence upon them, these films include The Shining, Alien and Barton Fink. However, upon it’s original release, Eraserhead was despised by both critics and financial backers whom labeled the movie as ‘bullshit’, ‘a sickening bad-taste exercise’, and ‘murkily pretentious’. Over the years, however, Eraserhead has enjoyed a dedicated cult following, and critics today are far more appreciative of it’s outstanding qualities than they were in 1977.
To begin with, Eraserhead is a film that’s very difficult to understand. There’s an overarching plot for the main character of Henry – the story of a young man struggling to take care of an unwanted child – but the majority of the film is made up out of surreal imagery, heavy uses of symbolism, and scenes that feel like the fever dreams of a rampant madman. There’s a sense that, like many other David Lynch films, Eraserhead is a metaphorical satire of a particular part of American life. However, I cannot tell for the life of me what Eraserhead is specifically satirizing. Thematically, the story of Eraserhead is about America’s poor communities and the plight of a young couple who have to cope with an unwanted child. That being said, though, I feel that there’s more to Eraserhead than what I can understand. Throughout watching the entire film I felt like something else was going on that was lost underneath the film’s nightmarish imagery and surreal sequences. Like many, I’m curious as to what Eraserhead truly means, but to this day, David Lynch refuses to talk about the meaning behind Eraserhead, as he wants an audience to come to their own conclusions about what the film means. This, combined with the grim determination that it took for David Lynch to pull off the film in it’s entirety, as production of the film took six years (initial shooting began in 1971), is what makes me believe that Eraserhead was a deeply personal project for David Lynch which he wants to keep secretive.
As for the acting and performances, the main star of Eraserhead is actor Jack Nance, who is best known throughout the years for his role in Eraserhead and the numerous small appearances he makes in David Lynch’s later movies. Jack Nance has a very particularly strange acting style that consists of subdued movement and intense facial expressions. I feel that this perfectly suits the character of Henry Spencer as it makes the character feel quite vulnerable and innocent. However, something that I noticed about Eraserhead is that the character of Henry Spencer is the only character that feels somewhat human. Through very unorthodox acting and direction, the supporting cast of Eraserhead don’t feel like real people, they’re more like grotesque caricatures that float in the uncanny valley. It’s a bizarre approach, especially for a feature film, but I feel that it’s just another reason why Eraserhead is unlike any other film that I’ve ever witnessed.
Eraserhead is also a clear example of David Lynch’s iconic visual style. The film may be monochrome in colour, but the film’s cinematography is stunning. The utilization of close up shots and slow, sweeping camera angles really gives the film a distinct, breath taking visual flair. Every single shot in this film is quite picturesque with a focus on spacing, placement and lighting. The amount of care put into the way the film looks is evident onscreen, and I would go so far to say that every single shot of Eraserhead, no matter how insignificant, is a fine example of expressive photography, obviously inspired by David Lynch’s previous studies as an artist. Lighting also plays a very important part in Eraserhead as the film’s aesthetics are quite dark with an emphasis on heavy shadows that obscure the audience’s vision during intense sequences, thus making the film quite unsettling to witness as a viewer. The post-production sound design, however, is what makes Eraserhead so powerfully unsettling. The constant sound of jarring, industrial droning can be heard throughout the entirety of the film, and it accentuates the more disturbing elements of the film by increasing in volume until it becomes nearly unbearable. It’s very distracting to hear, and it’s very uncomfortable to listen to. Sound design has always been a main focus of David Lynch’s films, but Eraserhead is uncompromising in it’s use of sound, and it creates a thoroughly disturbing, uncomfortable experience for the audience.
However, I cannot talk about Eraserhead without mentioning the ‘baby’. In my opinion, I feel that the ‘baby’ is still as shocking, still as disturbing, still as sickening and still as mysterious as it was in 1977. To this day, David Lynch refuses to talk about how he made the disturbingly realistic prop, and how it was manipulated. In fact, during production screenings of rough footage, David Lynch would even have the projectionist cover his eyes so that no-one knew how he created the ‘baby’. There are theories behind what the ‘baby’ actually was, the most believable one being that it was an embalmed horse fetus, but David Lynch has neither confirmed nor denied these rumors. However, what is true is that the ‘baby’ is the most frightening aspect of Eraserhead, and it’s something that makes Eraserhead so iconic to this day. It’s something that one needs to witness as I cannot do it justice by description alone, just take my word that it’s one of the most frightening, most sickening creatures that I’ve witnessed throughout my time exploring the world of demented cinema.
Eraserhead is, in my opinion, the greatest achievement of David Lynch’s career. Mulholland Drive may be his finest film, but I feel that Eraserhead is much more powerful and leaves a much greater impact. Eraserhead is unlike any other film that I’ve witnessed. I believe it has stood the test of time and is still as powerfully disturbing now as it was in 1977. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that David Lynch will ever make another film like this as his name is one that’s quite commercially viable nowadays – thanks to his TV shows and blockbuster movies such as The Elephant Man and The Straight Story – and Eraserhead in not, nor was it ever, a commercially viable film. Eraserhead made it’s first run as a midnight movie due to it’s initial negative reaction, however, over the years it has became one of the most important films of the 1970’s, and possibly one of the most important films ever made. In conclusion, Eraserhead is a must see, providing you have the mental capacity to withstand it’s nightmare inducing imagery.