Eraserhead (1977)

Filed under: — Arjan Welles on March 16th, 2006 09:03:25 pm

Strangely, Lynch’s very first film, Eraserhead, was the last one for me to see. I saw it last night and I am gravely shocked. In fact, I slept dreadfully. This is, by far, one of the most disturbing and weird films I have ever seen. It left me with a humongous sense of aversion. And I frickin’ loved it. Lynch filmed his first long feature over a time span of five years. This implied sets torn down and rebuilt and Jack Nance, who plays the lead, having the same haircut for five years. In fact, in some scenes Nance’s character leaves a room and enters another one 18 months older.

The main reason why it took Lynch so long to produce and direct this film was due to financial circumstances. The film cost about $10,000 and Lynch even took a paper route to finance his film. Money also came from other financers, including actress Sissy Spacek. Eraserhead was THE reason John Hurt decided to do this monumental part in The Elephant Man (even though a good friend of his strongly advised against it) and was one of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite films. If you want to get acquainted with the work of David Lynch, this sure is not the film to start your journey.

The years after the 1977 release, Eraserhead has gained cult status. It is not hard to tell why. For a long time, the film was only available in a special DVD box that could be purchased on Lynch’s own website (www.davidlynch.com). This year, a new official release (albeit without the special package) became commercially available. The great thing about the films of David Lynch is, there is not just one explanation that is the right one. Lynch refuses to tell his audience what his true intensions were when making Eraserhead. He based the film on a twenty page screenplay (this being one of the main reasons why production companies didn’t want to invest in it). So all I can do is guess and give my thoughts about the film. Please give yours in the comment box below.

Eraserhead starts as a rather presumptuous yet intriguing artfilm. We see the head of what turns out to be the protagonist, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance, in the film credited as John Nance). His head is intersected by shots of rocks (and a man on a rock) and a wormlike creature. This creature will be a of later significance (if there is any). This dreamlike sequence is accompanied by intriguing sound effects. In fact, in Lynch’s films sound is almost as important as image.

After the dream sequence, we find Henry walking back and forth to his apartment, which is located in a modern yet gloomy industrial environment (Lynch has based the locations of Eraserhead on the time he spent in Philadelphia). He is greeted by his female neighbour, who lives across the hall. She tells him his girlfriend, Mary X, whom he hasn’t seen for some time, has called. Some scenes later we find Henry visiting Mary and her parents. They have dinner, eating a rather peculiar piece of poultry, that starts to erupt what seems blood and spastically moves its limbs. Mary’s mother tells Henry her daughter has delivered a baby, after a miraculously short pregnancy. The baby is seriously misshaped.

Mary decides to move in with Henry to take care of the baby. The baby is a cross between a calf’s embryo and a reptile and wrapped in bandages. Mary and Henry go to bed, but the baby doesn’t stop crying, driving Mary insane. She leaves Henry and her baby that same night. What follows, I won’t describe in detail (also because I cannot remember it in full detail). Henry is obsessed with the radiator in his room and in his dreams he visits the inside of his radiator. There he meets a singing woman in white with hamsterlike cheeks. In the final shot of the film he embraces her. In another dream Henry’s head is chopped of and drops down the window on the street. A little boy picks up his head and takes it to a machine operator, whose boss decides Henry’s brains would make perfect erasers for the tips of pencils. Henry envisions his head growing back as his baby’s. At the end of the film, Henry cuts open the bandages of his baby, that turns out to be part of his body. He pierces the baby’s heart with his scissors and the baby’s insides start to explode as a foamlike substance. Eventually the baby dies.

Strange stuff huh? I am pretty positive, my description of these scenes is inadequate, even incomplete. You really have to see this film again to really grab hold of all this visual information. I found all this imagery way too distorting to watch it again this soon. Now, what do we have here based on a first view? In order to make any sense of something that does not want to make sense in the first place, we have to establish the circumstances under which Lynch created his first feature. In interviews Lynch has said Eraserhead deals with his Philadelphia years, when he was still in film school. Secondly, the film was written at the time Lynch and his first wife were expecting their first baby. So, Eraserhead is all about his fears of his upcoming fatherhood. This may explain the rather diabolic baby. Not even the two directors of photography who worked on Eraserhead were shown how Lynch, who created the visual effects himself, had created the baby. Some people claim Lynch used a calf’s embryo. Viewers undoubtedly will be overwhelmed with a sense of aversion the very first time they see the baby.

With Eraserhead, Lynch sets the standard for most of his later films, yet in a more experimental fashion. What is prominent in most of his film is the thin line between real world and fantasy/dream world (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr.). As was the case with Mulholland Dr., in Eraserhead it is hard to tell which is which. What is the real world and what is the dream world? What makes this even harder to distinguish is Lynch hardly ever shows clearly where these two worlds interact or exchange. This might lead to the conclusion, for Lynch both worlds are similar.

Lynch uses eerie black and white, slightly tilted cameras and a rough-grainy cinematography, making it even harder to tell what you see onscreen. This is, by far, Lynch’s closest approach to horror, yet with rather straight narratives. What is left is the symbolism of brains serving as erasers and a woman with hamster cheeks. It would be very hard to put your finger on these images. Maybe you have to refrain from doing so and focus on the gruesome nature of these images. Some people claim the final embrace with the ‘hamster woman’ symbolizes the death of Henry. Who can tell? I dare you to give your vision on this film, even though Lynch himself had said he has yet to read an explanation that fits his own.

The next title I will discuss will be Lost Highway.

author picture Arjan Welles (213 posts)
Arjan Welles - law graduate. I work at a bank, I work as a film critic for Dutch and English media. My favorite directors are David Lynch, David Fincher, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino. I love arthouse over blockbusters.

12 Comments

  • I finally got to watch Eraserhead,actually over the time of 2 1/2 days. Usually this makes a film inconsistently emotional for me personally but this stuck with me. For dumb reasons I didnt get to finish it all at once but it stayed with me each time in between viewings. For one this is one of the most disturbing and odd films Ive ever seen. Two,that’s why I praise it. I’d heard about it for years and figured it was overrated before seeing it. Seeing as it was one of Kubrick’s favorite films,one he screened for the cast before filming The Shining. To me,for its isolated,slow scenes,it actually resembles The Shining or possible vice versa considering it came out 3 years beforehand.I just finished it an hour ago and I still cant let it go and I actually want to go watch it again.The first Lynch film I’d seen was Lost Highway,followed by Blue Velvet. Both which I loved but I have to put them behind Lynch’s debut here. It really made me nauseous and left me intrigued throughout.I’ve seen some very disgusting,disturbing films like Cannibal Holocaust and some that were worse than that but Eraserhead evokes the sickness in a good way and if I already want to see it again,its an instant favorite in my book.

    Comment by Jonathan — Fri September 8, 2006 @ 18:50
  • wow… i just saw the movie and honestly, i am not into such movies at all. i usually watch other stuff like requiem for a dream, trainspotting, scarface etc. Anyways this is the first time i saw such a movie and a part of me was saying that its totally pointless and another part of me was just soo hooked on. at the end of the movie, i was extremely intrigued but didnt want any explanation of sorts because i was so extremely fascinated by it. the sound work was absolutely amazing and the powerful images were also one of a kind. anyways i decided to find out more abt this movie and stumbled up on ur site. now you seem like a person who knows a lot about his movies. i really want to explore this “art film society” and so want some reccomendations. whether they are of david lynch or any other director. besides that i really like your review. i like the fact that you didnt stress to mch on what you thought but let the readers decide by giving a short paragraph abt why david lynch made this movie. anyways good job on that… movie reccomendations will be much appreciated. thanks

    Comment by Requiem — Thu September 6, 2007 @ 10:18
  • Being a huge Lynch fan (and under the rather unabashed assumption I actually get most of his work), I would really advise you to go see either Mulholland Dr. or INLAND EMPIRE (both also reviewed on CoP). Lost Highway would be a good choice too…

    To be perfectly honest I am not even that much into arty films, such as Eraserhead and mainly wanted to provide the reader more info about under what circumstances it came about. Personally, I believe this influences how you perceive this film a great deal.

    If you like tough films such as the work of Lynch you may like many European filmmakers such as Fellini (his early films), Bergman and Krzysztof Kieslowski (both his early Polish films like A Short Film About Killing and Amator and his French films such as La Double Vie de Véronique and the Trois Couleurs trilogy). Buñuel may be a good choice too, since his early films were very artlike (L’Age D’Or, Un Chien Andalou). The great French filmmakers are also very interesting such as François Truffaut (Jules et Jim) and Louis Malle (Ascensceur Pour l’Echafaud). Check out imdb…

    Comment by arjan — Mon September 10, 2007 @ 19:59
  • It is quite simple.

    Henry is schizophrenic.

    Comment by Director Adam M. — Wed January 16, 2008 @ 3:09
  • Great movie, s****y review

    Comment by J-dog — Wed March 19, 2008 @ 4:05
  • I first saw this film in the 80s when I was about 25. I now have a legit copy.
    I just love it. I am so drawn by it.
    It probably was the pivotal cinama experience from which my tastes for more obscure and alternative cinema began. Each viewing reveals more layers of meaning and never loses its impact. The black and white film is perfect and though I would probably view it in colour if available, I can’t imagine it to be as perfect an expression as the B&W version
    Its a must see, must own film.
    Other all time favouite of mine are City of Lost Children, Soylent Green, and Delicatessen. I guess I have macabre tastes.

    Comment by Carlina — Wed March 26, 2008 @ 9:10
  • Oh and another one of my all time faves is
    Bad Boy Bubby
    but I will leave this web site before I leave a trail of add on faves

    Comment by Carlina — Wed March 26, 2008 @ 9:19
  • Yeah, it’s simple, alright. It’s the ability of any whacko to get his tripe labeled as “art” and convince the ignorant viewers that they are “special” because they are so intrigued by it. I know what he was thinking (and still is)… “Suckers!”

    Comment by lyndie — Sun March 1, 2009 @ 3:45
  • Great review S*****y film.

    Comment by Alice — Fri June 26, 2009 @ 21:45
  • While it may not be the most astounding film of all time, it definitely deserves respect simply for the repulsion factor. No matter the meaning or how “artsy” it is, this is one of the most disturbing films I’ve seen in a very long time, and that definitely deserves recognition. Plenty of directors aim to draw the same feeling from their audience but few achieve this so intensely as Lynch in this film.

    Comment by Dbag — Sun February 7, 2010 @ 12:48
  • I may understand 30% of this movie. Looking up the sybolism helps out alot. All I know is there arent too many other movies I can think of that have you staring at a tv in the dark and actually make you feel that creepy and oppressed. If anything, this movie provides atmosphere like no other. Everything is normal, but a really f*!#@d up normal that only a person very close to losing his mind would see. Everything is drab, dreary and watching this for an hour and a half conveys only a sense of paranoia and despair. This is not the best, nor worst movie I’ve ever seen. The most disturbing…by far.

    Comment by Steve — Mon May 10, 2010 @ 7:35
  • BTW, this movie in color wouldnt fly at all.

    Comment by Steve — Mon May 10, 2010 @ 7:37

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