Director: David Lynch
Production Company: American Film Institute
One Sentence Synopsis: Henry must explore the dark mysteries of his life through a bizarre dreamworld.
Release Date: March 19, 1977
Running Time: 85 minutes
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Reviewed by: Dove
Final Score: 5 Moons (out of 5)
Eraserhead is probably David Lynch’s most famous film, and gives you a good idea of what his signature (Lynchian) style is like. It’s oneiric, dark, and properly surreal. (Surreal is a description that tends to be a little bit over-used, but it can definitely be applied to almost anything done by Lynch.) Its strangeness goes beyond the surface, giving it a dreamlike, noirish atmosphere. Sometimes it’s almost calming (albeit eerily so), while at others it depicts scenes taken from an absolute nightmare.
However, this is not just weirdness for the sake of being weird. As I’ve already said, the strangeness on display is hardly shallow. The events of this film follow a dream-logic that actually makes perfect sense when viewed in a certain way. Actually, its setting is really just a slightly distorted, more industrialized version of our own world. Most of what happens in the plot is made up of everyday things, but viewed from a bizarre perspective, set in an unsteady reality that seems on the verge of collapsing, or at least of coming apart at the seams.
The main character is a worried-looking young man with weird hair named Henry Spencer. He might as well not have a name at all, though- everyone and everything in this film has a sense of anonymity about it, which seems to have been intentional on Lynch’s part. For a start, his girlfriend is named Mary X, while his neighbor is literally called The Beautiful Girl Across The Hall. I’m not sure if X’s parents even have names. The film also features two enigmatic characters from Henry’s dreams- the Man In The Planet and the Lady In The Radiator -whose names, like his neighborâ€™s, are really more descriptions than anything else. Names are very important things, especially in fiction. This namelessness adds to the bleak feel of the film, turning everything murky and uncertain. Like in a dream, it’s often hard to pinpoint what exactly is going on. It seems obvious on the surface, but when you think about it, you realize there’s something kind of…off about it, something that doesn’t quite make sense. It’s in this way that Lynch delivers most of the film’s weirdness- it’s phantasmagorical, but not in a carnival thrill ride sort of way. There are only one or two scenes that are almost completely off-the-wall (the opening, for instance), but those are made all the more effective because of this.
After a very awkward dinner with his girlfriend’s family (in which they eat manufactured and- ahem-bleeding chickens), he learns that she’s pregnant with his baby. When the baby is actually born, however, it looks grotesque and barely human. They try to take care of it as best they can, but soon Mary ends up leaving, unable to handle such a strenuous task. Henry is left to look after it all alone, something he isn’t fully capable of doing. I’ve read in a good few places that this is all meant to symbolize fears about the modern world and about parenthood, but I don’t really think it symbolizes that at all- rather, it’s about those things. It isn’t really hidden, and even if they weren’t the creator’s intent, the viewer can pick up on those things pretty easily. Hidden symbolism is great, but I also like the idea of art having its own internal symbolism, being important and meaningful in its own right, without external influence being taken into account. Henry’s parental problems are just a part of the film, and they are symbolic of themselves. On the other hand, that is not to say that they can’t be also related to real life. According to Wikipedia, some of this was inspired by Lynch’s own anxieties after his daughter was born. According to our editor-in-chief (whoâ€™s a filmmaker), the film actually took four years to shoot, since it was shot at the college Lynch graduated from starting his senior year and going on for another three years after he graduated.
[Editorâ€™s Note: Incredibly, thereâ€™s one scene where the actual time difference between when the actor who plays Henry opens a particular door and when he enters the next room is separated by nearly two actual years. â€“JT]
It’s after all this that the film descends into a proper nightmare. The only truly beautiful thing to offer Henry any solace is the woman from his dreams, the Lady in the Radiator. Despite her oddly puffy face, she’s deliriously beautiful, and it’s only the lighting in her scenes that have any sort of warmth to them. Then again, that’s what a radiator does- it provides warmth.
As for the visuals, they are beautiful. Thanks to its being shot in black-and-white, the whole thing resembles some lost horror film from the 1930s. It has a very noirish look about it, and everything appears to be obscured by shadows. The lack of sufficient light accentuates the hopelessness of this world, while many special effects are used to create grotesque and unusual sights, such as the terrifyingly inhuman baby.
One thing this film is famous for is its soundtrack, which shows off Lynch’s mastery of music as well as film. You could see it as early industrial or ambient music, what with its use of eerie, atmospheric sound effects and electronic stuff. As well as this, the soundtrack contains music by Fats Waller, and most notably, a haunting song called “In Heaven”, performed by the Lady in the Radiator. This song is one of the highlights of the film, and has been covered by many bands, including Miranda Sex Garden, Tuxedomoon, the Danse Society, the Pixies, and Zola Jesus.
Like Salvador Dali, Lynch is a creator who, while not Goth himself, has a strong Goth following. It’s easy to see why. Eraserhead combines darkness and strangeness, two of the things Goths love best. Not only that, the soundtrack (see above) has a strong Goth appeal, worth listening to in its own right.
Eraserhead is definitely a film worth seeing, and not just because of its cult status. David Lynch is one of the few people who understands fully the nature of strangeness, and how to make it work in fiction, which he illustrates perfectly here.
Story: 5 Moons (out of 5)
Presentation: 5 Moons (out of 5)
Gothic Fit: 5 Moons (out of 5)
Final Score (not an average): 5 Moons (out of 5)