On a dark and rainy night a few years ago I attended an 11pm screening of Eraserhead at Cinema du Parc, my favorite source for late night cult classics. Afterwards I popped into the bathroom with a full bladder and made my way into one of the stalls. Two guys walked in while I was there and I caught the tail-end of their conversation, which was about the movie we had just seen. “I didn’t get it, man. What an awful movie. And in black and white? I almost fell asleep halfway through”. I could hear his friend mumbling in appreciation as they exited the bathroom. Fortunately for those gentlemen, here in Canada pre-meditated assault is a felony so they were spared a couple of knuckle sandwiches, seeing as how I could not act impulsively. People, if you remember just one sentence from this entire review, make it this one: in Eraserhead, there’s nothing TO get.
If you haven’t already seen this movie I urge you to go out and do so. It took David Lynch several years to finish this project – partly because of a lack of funds and partly because he’s a perfectionist. Nevertheless the end result is beautiful, harrowing, surreal and most importantly, Lynch-esque. This is why I was so angered that night by the guy’s comment – Eraserhead is a wonderful example of avant-garde, experimental film and he should have expected that beforehand. Enough about ignorance, let’s delve into the inner-workings of this masterpiece.
Cinematography is normally the first aspect of a movie that I analyze. I enjoy being sucked into a story through clever and unorthodox filming techniques. There’s an abundance of those in this movie. The opening sequence itself is one that should be studied by all aspiring horror movie makers, as it sets the mood by introducing the main character as a lost, wandering soul who trudges around his industrial neighborhood completely alone. Faint mechanical noises are heard in the background and again, nothing loud or obnoxious to distract the viewer. Just parts rubbing together in an indistinguishable manner.
Lynch remains relatively ‘simple’ throughout the entire movie by limiting emotion and interaction between his characters. Jack Nance, instantly recognizable by his Kramer-like hairstyle is fantastic in his role of petrified father-to-be. Not only is he constantly unsure of himself or his surroundings, we (the audience) seem to live vicariously through him in the sense that no one, including him, knows what is going to happen next. His will to live is almost non-existent as he shows absolutely no passion for anything. We don’t learn much about his character but we know this: he is completely devoid of a personality and crumbles in shame before his girlfriend when she yells at him, proving his inability to stand up for himself. When he looks outside his window, all he can see is a brick wall, a steady reminder that there are no paths leading up to the light – he is perpetually stuck in hell.
A true horror movie in every sense of the genre, Eraserhead is spooky because of its ability to lead you down a dark and narrow path in which there is no proper exit. Even Lynch was confused as to how he should proceed while he was filming it. One day, after a difficult moment on set, he opened up a bible and started reading. Suddenly he found a sentence that “fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent” and was able to finish the movie without a problem. He said he’d never reveal what it was – thankfully. That would be like knowing what existed before the big bang – the mystery is much better than the truth. Therefore, if he had such a hard time creating Eraserhead, I believe we should watch it with the knowledge that he tailored this movie for people with open minds, and that if we try to ‘figure it out’ we’ll ruin our experience and destroy any potential chance of appreciating it for what it truly is.
In terms of style there is very little here – everything is stripped down and shot in black and white. I have always wanted more and more horror movies this way because nowadays they seem to try too hard, and they get lost in character development or trying to keep us entertained with violence and gore. Furthermore black and white movies play better at night, which is when you should watch Eraserhead. Lynch uses shadows and contrasts to lure us into his world, coupled with a truly creepy soundtrack composed of random sounds, noises and even carnival music. When the final twenty minutes take place the mood has long been established and the story somehow veers even more off course. A terrifying crescendo in both sound and sight leaves us bewildered as the credits appear out of nowhere, a beautiful testimony to the abilities Lynch possessed (even as a novice director) to make us squirm in our seats.
Finally, I would like to say that Eraserhead is a cult-favorite for a reason; it continuously weaves its way into darker and darker environments and we’re forced to tag along. The reality derived from the simplistic aspects of this movie really puts us into Jack Nance’s shoes, as the emptiness around him slowly consumes his very being.
Lynch had this to say about his movie: “Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is.” People should keep that in mind when seeing it for the first time, and to approach it with no expectations whatsoever – except to be scared, of course.