Review #3 in Holen’s Halloween Extravaganza 2019!
ERASERHEAD (1977 Libra Films)
Directed by David Lynch
“That was even more unsettling than I remember,” said Holen after viewing Eraserhead for the first time in many moons. You see, I hadn’t planned to review this surrealist masterpiece for my Halloween reviews, but then a funny thing happened. Criterion Collection had a 50% off sale, so I decided to order the Blu-ray of Eraserhead, finally adding one of the few missing pieces to my David Lynch collection, and securing one of my favorite films of all time in the process. I’m in pretty good company calling it a favorite, as it’s beloved by talents as diverse as Mel Brooks, Crispin Glover, and Stanley Kubrick. As a matter of fact, Kubrick screened this film on the set of The Shining in an attempt to express the mood he was trying to capture with his own film.
If you’ve never seen it and you believe that the following tidbit is giving you a solid idea of what to expect, you’d be pretty wrong. Eraserhead and The Shining may share similar abilities to cause tension, but that’s about it. Eraserhead honestly has more in common with 2001. It’s an overwhelming barrage of images and ideas, rather than concrete dialogue or relatable characters. Filmed in hazy black and white, the movie can best be summed up as a dream. Not dreamlike, but a dream. There’s very little in this film that we can connect back to our own world, and even the things that we recognize act in ways that we’ve never seen before. That process of making the common seem alien births fear. Like the chickens that come alive on their plates as you try to cut them.
But this fear is anchored in a sense of wide-eyed wonder. We’re unable to turn away, and much like a dream, we’re helpless to resist the unsettling events we’re seeing on the screen. The plot is simple. A man on vacation from his printing job in an industrial town learns he’s impregnated his girlfriend. She gives birth to a premature baby that doesn’t look humanoid at all. She doesn’t have the endurance to take care of the child, so he’s left to deal with it on his own. We see our “hero” Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) struggle with the realities of being a new father, and all the fear and repressed emotions that accompany this time. The film takes an unflinching look at the ID surrounding fatherhood. Henry fears being usurped by his own son, and worries that his status as a father will make women turn away from him in fear. He struggles with whether he should kill his “child”, being egged on by a woman that lives in his radiator with swollen cheeks
None of this is dealt with in a traditional way, and none of it is expressed through dialogue. It’s a visual film that manages to deal with the harsh realities of these subliminal primal feelings by masking their brutal nature in the ambiguous whimsical wrap of dream logic. It would be impossible to feel any empathy towards Henry in a traditional film, but this movie gives us a disturbing look into the inner psyche of a man pushed far outside of his comfort zone, outside of his sanity. None of Henry’s actions until the end of the film could be considered sinister at all, as his worries are almost entirely projected out through the world around him.
At first, Henry seems to be quite caring to his child in every way. He’s there when the mother is not, is concerned when the baby is sick, and generally seems to be a polite mild-mannered man. Like many David Lynch films, Eraserhead searches past the shiny surface into the dark underbelly of reality, however unpleasant it may be. He did the same thing with small town American suburbs in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and Hollywood in Mulholland Dr.
For my money though, he never created another picture as personal and as inimitable as Eraserhead. It achieves what it sets out to do with no fat, no moment wasted in its brief 89 minute run-time. I don’t understand everything in Eraserhead, but to me that’s part of the charm. It’s a riveting picture more disturbing than most horror, it forces you to be an active viewer by constantly engaging your brain, and it explores aspects of fatherhood most of us would rather deny existed. The 4K restoration done by Criterion looks and sounds wonderful, as the soundtrack is as much a part of this movie as the visuals are. I didn’t know that industrial noise could be so involving and manipulative, but the oppressive sounds reinforce the images on screen with masterful synchronization. The minutes on end of heavy bass make your entire body clench up until it suddenly ceases and you sit wondering what the hell just happened to you. It’s truly a masterpiece of cinema, and an extraordinary debut film. If you can stomach the supreme tension, seek one out today!