It’s easy to describe Eraserhead as a nightmare captured on film, but that assumes writer/director David Lynch has a negative view of his twisted imagery and bizarre subjects. For this movie lover, Lynch’s gorgeous, sometimes nonsensical story of a man, a woman, and their skinless-sheep-looking love-child is a dream come true. Having only watched Eraserhead once, I don’t know that I truly get what it’s trying to say; the film has no doubt been the subject of many essays and reviews. But I have the same hesitation in looking up expert analyses as I do for buying a dream-interpretation book to unravel my own nocturnal fantasies. Some mysteries are better left to the imagination and repeat viewings.
The story begins with Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) literally losing his mind: inside the asteroid landscape of his brain sits a diseased old man staring out a window; he pulls a couple of levers, which causes Henry’s tiny brain (stem, spine and all) to levitate from his gaping mouth. We catch up with Henry walking home from his job at the printing factory. He checks the mail, takes the elevator up to his apartment, and runs into the Beautiful Girl Across the Hallway (Judith Roberts); she tells him that another girl left a message for him, and he leaves to visit his would-be girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart).
Henry’s nervous disposition and Mary’s fidgety shyness make for some tremendously awkward exchanges, and suggests that they haven’t been together very long. Mary surprises Henry by inviting him inside for dinner with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. X (Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates, respectively). Mr. X is a jovial chatterbox who quizzes Henry about his job, oblivious to his daughter’s sudden epileptic seizure and the fact that the miniature chicken on Henry’s plate has begun gushing blood. Later, Mrs. X corners Henry in a hallway and demands to know if he’s had sex with her daughter. As he struggles for a good answer, she furiously licks him—until Mary pops up, crying and demanding that her mother leave Henry alone. The doctors at the hospital, she says, “aren’t even sure if it is a baby” (meaning, of course, that since the last time the couple saw each other, Mary delivered a child—or something—and lost the baby weight).
A short time later, Henry and Mary are living in Henry’s apartment with their newborn, the aforementioned skinless-lamb creature who sleeps wrapped in gauze on a dresser across from their bed. Also living with them are patches of wild grass that grow under the radiator and a young tree that rises from a dirt mountain on Henry’s nightstand. How could I forget the last occupant? The guts of the radiator contain a Vaudeville stage complete with lights and musical accompaniment for the swollen-cheeked pixie (Laurel Near) who performs there on-demand.
Here’s where Eraserhead gets weird, and I’ll leave it to you to discover what the ensuing disease, song interlude and trip to the speakeasy/pencil factory means—or doesn’t mean. Lynch captures a dream state perfectly; not dreaming in general, but I believe he could have had this particular dream. Every aspect of his film sold me on the authenticity of the sights, sounds and conflicted emotions of this mixture of cerebral soup.
Even more than the visuals—the typical crutch by which filmmakers often rise and fall when making dream movies—Lynch’s original score and the sound effects that he and Alan Splet concoct for this reality send us hurtling into the mind of Henry Spencer. The perpetual wind and rain blasting Henry’s apartment, gurgling baby sounds, and the Lady in the Radiator’s long rendition of “In Heaven Everything is Fine” make for an 88-minute off-kilter sensation. There’s as much screwy audio texture here as there are strange set pieces to ogle, and it contributes to that feeling of watching the Big Twist Reveal of every good Twilight Zone episode on a loop.
I don’t want to sell the look of the film short, though. David Lynch made a low-budget black-and-white fantasy look and function more effectively in 1976 than either Tim Burton or James Cameron managed to with ridiculous budgets in the last few years. The layouts for Henry’s apartment and Mary’s house are so perfectly strange—and in their strangeness, so believable—that they seem less like triumphs in set design than miracles of found art. More than that, I found the lamb-child puppetry more convincing than it should’ve been—mostly because the fact that the puppet didn’t quite move right was undone by the craftsmanship of what looked to be an actual baby sheep’s head that’d been stuffed with animatronics. Awful, wrong things happen to it: the bubbling guts, body deformation, and blood-geysers reminded me of David Cronenberg in general and Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive in particular (pus pudding, anyone?).
That’s not to say the movie is a gore-fest. Lynch balances shock with lyricism, aided by cinematographers Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. The few outside scenes of Henry walking through the industrial wasteland on his way home from work and the sad front yard of Mary’s urban apartment suggests that Lynch wants to take us inside not just the mind of his characters but away from the outside world; to a place where things are weird, but cozy and, on some level, safe. It’s a testament to Cardwell, Elmes and Lynch that their color-less fantasy land feels warm where it needs to and deadly cold when isolation is the aim.
Like a lot of dreams, Eraserhead has moments of fluidity and blockages where time stands still for way too long. It operates on the terms of its own logic, and we never get the impression that things are arbitrary; we are the interlopers in a universe that has operated as casually as ours for a long time, and it’s not our place to question plants sprouting from furniture. Lynch respects that fine line between insanity and Too Much Insanity, giving us just enough to relate to so we don’t tune out. He cracked the dreamscape nut with a nothing budget and a big idea decades before Christopher Nolan tried—and failed—to do the same with his big-budget, half-baked thriller, Inception. Eraserhead is a confounding, uplifting mind-game masterpiece that cries “foul” on every filmic exploration of the subconscious that followed it.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 02/26/11.]