It takes 89 minutes to watch David Lynch‘s 1977 debut Eraserhead, but it would take 89 years to figure out what the hell it was that you just saw. As Lynch’s first full length feature film, Eraserhead is unquestionably the most “David Lynch” out of any work in his filmography. The film is a bizarre and darkly surreal mix of drama, body horror, grotesquery, black comedy, and mystery, all shot in a stark black and white over an unsettling industrial noise soundtrack.
There is a tendency in “weird films” to simply make everything as “weird” as humanly (and cinematically) possible and to pump every scene with the unexplainable and grotesque. While Eraserhead certainly has that appearance in so many of its scenes, there seems to be no such laziness on the part of writer/ director David Lynch. Every frame of madness seems to be a shining part of Lynch’s own method and each level of intent Lynch paints upon the screen seems to inform the viewer that if you don’t get it, rest assured, Lynch does. He knows what he’s doing.
That may not sound like it makes for a particularly pleasant evening at the movies. If so, regardless of your reasons to think so, you’re right. There is nothing pleasant in Eraserhead, and Lynch would more than likely be offended if one observed anything of the sort. The feature stars Jack Nance as Henry Spencer, a strange guy with a bizarre hairstyle making him resemble something like the end of a pencil (and, no, the title is not that simple either). Spencer doesn’t have much besides his black suit, notable coif, and tiny apartment, but he does have a small radiator that houses a small theater where a strange and disfigured lady (Laurel Near) sings a creepy and beautiful song called “In Heaven”. At least, he thinks he does.
Shockingly, this strange guy also has a girlfriend in the form of Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). Their union produces something that even Mary is not sure is a “baby”. This inhuman thing won’t eat or drink, but it cries constantly and disturbingly, leading to even more insanity.
And insanity there is, in spades. Not only is there a “Lady in the Radiator”, but there is also a “Man in the Planet” (as played by Jack Fisk) and a “Beautiful Girl Across the Hall” (Judith Ann Roberts). Musical performances are “enhanced” by the dropping of human umbilical cords (representing giant sperm cells) onto the stage. Cooked poultry comes to life and bleeds as it is carved. Nightmares and sexual fantasies become so surreal that the balance of Eraserhead starts to seem vaguely normal (except for the enigmatic baby, the creation of which film scholars continue to debate unsuccessfully).
Strangely, while Lynch is amazing at disturbance and visceral horror, he also manages to touch a few unexpected emotional chords within the audience. This both brings the film’s mystery to an even higher level and also makes the film easier to sit through. Or, should I say, this helps to make the film impossible to turn away from?
The conundrum of Eraserhead is not meant to be “solved”, even if Lynch clearly seems to know exactly what he is doing here. This is true even with the release of the excellent 2014 Criterion Collection DVD set. The collection includes copious interviews (old and new) as well as a documentary feature and a booklet interview with Lynch, none of which really tell any secrets about how many of the stranger effects were done or divulge any secrets as to the meaning of Eraserhead.
But of course, this is the point. Eraserhead is not supposed to be “figured out”. This surreal mystery is part of what made Eraserhead so popular with repeat viewings over the years. It may never be pleasant. but it is something worth watching more than once whether on the midnight movie circuit or on the new Criterion Collection release.
Further, if Eraserhead seems like an unsolvable riddle, this feature is nothing compared to the short films of David Lynch that are also included here. The first disc contains Six Men Getting Sick (1967), The Alphabet (1968), The Grandmother (1970), both versions of The Amputee (1974) and Premonitions Following an Evil Deed (1995), all of which make Eraserhead seem accessible and commercial by comparison. The Grandmother specifically is a disturbing yet satisfyingly twisted tale.
All of the films on this release have been digitally restored and supervised under the supervision of Lynch himself, so each one looks and sounds great (relative though that term may be in some disconcerting instances). With the shorts and the feature included on the Eraserhead criterion collection release, we may have the best and most condensed exposure into the psyche of David Lynch, even if we never figure out what exactly it is that we are looking at.
Critic Ken Tucker once wrote of Lynch’s work “Plot is irrelevant; moments are everything.” Never was this more true than with Eraserhead: you may never truly figure out the story or what it is meant to convey, but the lighting, effects, editing and especially directing are so dead on and beautifully executed that the visuals carry the piece over every question mark. In the end, the questions beckon you back.