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Catching up with a Classic: With ‘Eraserhead’ Lynch created a new cinematic language

Throughout January, SOS writers will be biting the bullet and finally sitting down with a film they feel like bad film buffs for not having seen already.


Directed by David Lynch

Written by David Lynch

1977, USA

Watching David Lynch’s Inland Empire in a near-empty cinema one Tuesday afternoon, is still the most terrifying cinematic experience I have ever had. When the movie finished and the lights came on in the cinema, I looked around and there was only one other person still sitting in their seat. A girl. She looked the same as me. Pale. My hands were clammy and my back was wet with sweat. I left and went outside. The sun was shining brightly, but I was still spooked and looking over my shoulder as I walked to the bus stop. When I closed my eyes all I could see was flashes of images from the film. The rabbits. Those damn rabbits.

So on a cold wet Friday afternoon, I decided it was time to try and replicate this experience by watching Lynch’s debut film Eraserhead for the first time. The film opens with a dream like sequence of the main character, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), floating sideways through dark space with his tall chimney of curly hair. Mixing layers of surrealist imagery (including a deformed man dwelling on a granite planet pulling iron levers and sperm like creatures swimming in and out of focus), it acts as a prologue, foreshadowing Henry’s story. It also brings you into the realm of Lynch’s imagination; a fresh cinematic world of his own creation.

Set against an industrial backdrop, Lynch establishes Henry walking home with his bag of groceries underneath grey skies, passing imposing factories with thick open pipes extinguishing steam, and crossing wastegrounds filled with heaps of dirt and puddles. Shot in black and white still frames, it’s a tableau of a nightmarish world.

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Henry lives in a sparse one-bedroom apartment with a single window that faces a brick wall. The apartment lobby is quiet and deserted, with pencil thin corridors and low lighting emanating from flickering lamps. Lynch takes mundane settings and turns them into something more unsettling, a visual motif  he would use in later films and already fully formed in Eraserhead.

The story begins as Henry encounters his neighbour (Judith Anna Roberts), a lusty brunette he is clearly attracted to and initimated by, who passes along a message of a dinner invite from his estranged girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). Visiting Mary inside her austere family home (like something from a 1950s American TV commercial), an awkward dinner takes place with her parents; the superficial niceties laced with an underlying tension. When Henry is asked to carve the chicken, it’s legs start kicking in mock can-can style and brown ooze leaks from it’s overcooked carcass. The mother suffers a fit and tells Henry that Mary has had a premature baby and that he must marry her (a scene made more uncomfortable by the mother suddenly trying to kiss Henry – a sign of her own loneliness and desperation).

Mary temporarily moves in with Henry and their baby, which turns out to be seriously deformed as well as being premature – it has a small head like a reptile with eyes on either side of it’s head, and a long thin neck that goes into a body wrapped in bandages. The baby, while lying incongruously on a single pillow on top of a chest of drawers, cries incessantly. Mary, tired and desperate, abandons the child and Henry, leaving them in the middle of the night.

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Lynch uses this crux to send the film off into a myriad of mysterious images as the lines between reality, dreams and hallucination quickly begin to blur. Henry enters through door-after-door of alternative perception; a vision in his radiator of a cutesy girl with pigtails and puffed out cheeks tap-dancing on a stage covered in dead foetus’; a dream with his head popping off and falling out in the street; his brain being sold by a child scavenger to a pencil eraser factory (which for me had an element of Terry Gilliam’s animation from The Monty Python TV series); an imagined sexual encounter with his neighbour in a bed that sinks into molten lava.

Layer upon layer is applied, until solid ground is lost and Henry is floating upwards and upwards in transcendence, a journey between reality and unconscious states. Lynch’s skill is that he does this without pretentiousness, and there is nothing didactic in his imagery. The symbolism is abstract and open to varying interpretations. Lynch frames the film with a darkness around the edges, which emphasizes the mood of isolation that Henry is experiencing.

As Henry seemingly returns to reality lying in his bed, Eraserhead reaches its climax with a final sequence straight from an old American drive-in horror flick. The uncomfortable feeling Lynch holds in suspension throughout the movie is finally released, when Henry cuts open the baby’s bandages and realizes that they were holding its body together. Gigantic foams of liquid pour from the body, with the baby’s wailing and it’s head growing into a grotesque monster. It is revolting, yet impossibly compelling. The hairs on my neck were standing on end.

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I watched the film with headphones on to contain myself in Lynch’s world, and the sound was really a revelation. Lynch’s use of sound keeps a persistent source of tension even in the most un-dramatic scenes. A constant hiss hovers in the background, a form of tinnitus, which Lynch interjects with distant sounds of whopping trains, fizzing light bulbs and the clattering of metal machinery. The industrial atmosphere is embedded in his head and won’t allow Henry to relax and switch his mind off (or the viewer). Even when Henry turns on his Gramophone, a wobbly waltz scratches out from the horn, turning a happy sounding piece of music into something more intense.

In the lead role Jack Nance finds the right balance in his portrayal of Henry, as he is crushed by anxiety and descends into violent delusions. Although he says little, he contorts his face in fear and astonishment without becoming a parody of a B-movie actor. Lynch shows Henry dealing with more than just surface suffering; Henry is a man frightened by personal sin (from getting Mary pregnant outside of marriage), stricken with loneliness in an industrial and dehumanised environment and suffering a shyness that cripples him from communicating. In his struggle to understand his place in the world, Henry is undergoing an inner transformation. Lynch later claimed in the book Catching the Big Fish that Eraserhead was his most spiritual movie.

Considering Lynch made Eraserhead on and off over five years (whenever he got the funds to shoot), it’s impressive how fully formed and seamless the final film appears. In a lot of self-financed debut films, from Scorsese to Cassavettes to Jarmusch, as they were shooting over a long time they were still improving on a technical level and still developing the story. Lynch displays an accomplished fully formed understanding of cinema and his own personal vision, to the extent where he is already deconstructing narrative in his first feature (something he would explore in greater depths throughout his career).

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If Alfred Hitchcock is the “master of suspense”, then Lynch is truly the master of eerie. With Eraserhead Lynch created a new cinematic language, which with his subsequent films, he has managed to stay consistently and remarkably true too; the juxtaposition of normality and brutality, of reality and unconsciousness. Everything appears fine on the surface, but lurking beneath are hidden monsters. It’s a world to get lost in, which opens doors into rooms most are afraid to enter; a distant hum, and a flickering light bulb, a sense that something sinister is happening but you don’t know what it is. That feeling gets under your skin and lingers long into the night.

– Tom Jarvis