Running time: 89 min.
Release date: March 19, 1977
Eraserhead is the first feature film for director David Lynch. It is filled with surreal images and very little dialogue; in fact, there are many instances where there is no dialogue and the white noise in the background speaks for everything that is unfolding onscreen. For a debut film, there is quite a bit of technical proficiency on display here, from the black and white cinematography to the musical score and sound editing. However one feels about the main course, that being the imagery presented by Lynch, depends on how one feels about decoding a film while watching it. Unfortunately, the surrealism is the movie's one sticking point that prevents me from recommending this film to anyone looking to be entertained.
The tone of the movie is set immediately with an image of Henry Spencer's (John Nance) head superimposed over what appears to be a planet in space. Inside a ramshackle shed on this planet, The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) pulls levers while Henry ejects a sperm from his mouth. It looks like The Man in the Planet controls the movement of the sperm as it is dropped into a pool of ooze. Next, we see Henry walking through some murky industrial city landscape to his small one room apartment. The images conveyed here are mixed with low-level background noise throughout, giving us a sort of threatening atmosphere. There is no escape from all the noise at any point in the film, making Henry's nervous character make sense. Henry gets a message from his neighbor, the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts); Henry's girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) is at her parents' house and he is invited over for dinner. We get a glimpse of Henry's apartment, which contains a dead plant in a mound of dirt.
Henry accepts the dinner invite and we meet Mary's parents. They have chicken, but when it is cut into it oozes blood and convulses on the plate. Mary's mother (Jeanne Bates) asks Henry if he and Mary have had intercourse and then proceeds to lick or kiss his neck. Meanwhile, Mary's father (Allen Joseph) just sits at the dinner table with a constant grin on his face, while behind him in the background, Mary cries. I'm sure I'm not giving these images justice the way I'm describing them, but this has been the strangest dinner gathering I've ever seen. Mary's mother informs Henry that Mary had a baby and it's at the hospital. The two of them must now get married, as Henry takes a rather fatalistic approach to the situation. Mary isn't even sure if what she had can be called a baby.
Back at Henry's apartment, he and Mary are now married as we get a shot of Mary feeding the "baby". The child appears to be reptilian in nature and is swaddled in bandages. Later, the constant mewling of the child drives Mary insane and she leaves the apartment, leaving Henry to care for the child, who has developed an illness that includes sores all over the body. Meanwhile, Henry envisions the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), who sings to him while stomping on sperm-like creatures. Spencer has an affair with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, giving us a scene where Henry's bed has suddenly become a cauldron as the two make love and sink inside. As if the movie couldn't get any more strange, we get scenes of Henry's head falling off, being replaced with the head of his child. His head sinks into a pool of blood and lands on the street, where a kid takes it to a factory to get turned into pencil erasers. Are you following this so far? The final scenes of the film are not any less muddled, and when the closing scene ends and the credits roll, you're left with a sense of confusion.
Let's start with what worked, The sound throughout the movie was designed by Lynch and Alan Splet. Lynch lays the sound underneath all the images in the film, giving the movie a feeling of nervous dread. Low whirring, high-pitched whines, rumbles; all permeate every scene in the film. The black and white cinematography by Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell offered up plenty of shadows; it turned blood into more of a black ooze, something less threatening than blood but more mysterious. The scene of eraser shavings being blown into the air was amazingly awash with light to give it more substance.
The surrealism of Eraserhead was more confusing than it was off-putting. When directors use imagery that requires decoding, it's almost as if they're saying that they're the smartest guys in the room and you, the viewer, need to keep up. Decoding these images while attempting to watch the film unfold is a distraction and comes off as pretentious. There was some semblance of narrative but the sidetrips into Lynch's demented images pushes you away rather than pull you in further. At times, the pacing was also very dull; some scenes were just boring.
The technical aspects of Eraserhead are quite astounding and worthy of discussion in conversations about such things. However, the images on display here are inaccessible. Future films by Lynch would have more direct storytelling, but Eraserhead should be approached with caution.