Eraserhead Review (1977)

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Eraserhead Review (1977)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on August 04th, 2018 | Movie Review | Cult Classic, Mind Bender, Psychological, Madness, Pregnancy, Arthouse

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It’s about a young couple who start a family and come to regret it.

Eraserhead was directed by David Lynch (who also directed Blue Velvet and Lost Highway) and stars Jack Nance (from Voodoo), Charlotte Stewart (from Tremors) and Allen Joseph.

Where your nightmares end...

Eraserhead Review

Eraserhead is a light-hearted family comedy about a bumbling young man and his long-suffering wife starting a family in the suburbs. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a print shop operator with a clever talent for typesetting, enough so to earn himself a vacation. He’s also a big Fats Waller fan. His wife, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), brings him over to meet her family for dinner and things get awkward when the new baby is announced. Hilarity ensues!

Not buying it, huh?

A Bit More Detail...

Well, yeah, that baby does turn out to be a shocker. And in fact this movie is the opposite of lighthearted; it is a dark, polluted, dingy, industrial hellscape without a speck of joy to be found. Come to that, barring the infanticide, the events of the movie don’t really qualify it as “horror” at all. It’s the WAY it was filmed, with hostile boiler-room racket and unsettling animations and nightmare sequences and a mood of oppressive damnation reeking from every frame, that makes it a horror movie. Not only is this the signature film of David Lynch, who has built his career out of unsettling viewers in ways they can’t even understand, but it’s his very first movie, the one he dumped onto the screen to announce himself to the world.

It stands alone. A million forgers couldn’t imitate it. It’s a fun movie to drag your friend to if they brag that horror movies never scare them. Other horror movies are pretty easy to apprehend: monster kills people, ghost haunts house, psycho interrupts shower. Scary, yes, but in ways you can articulate and come to grips with. Eraserhead digs past all those defense mechanisms in your cerebrum to attack deep within your mind, burrowing into the lizard-brain, drilling into your hippocampus. When you get scared by Eraserhead, you might need some therapy to work through it afterwards.

People who can’t deal with this movie call it all a dream.

It fills me with towering nerd rage when I hear somebody dismiss any movie as “all just a dream.” Oh, the fictional story made up by creative people was an act of imagination? Hey, thanks, that clears it right up! If I see you at the beach and ask you how’s the water, are you going to tell me it’s wet, too? Eraserhead is a perfectly rational, linear narrative! But to tell you how, first I have to present the Grand Unified Theory of David Lynch, a little number called:

Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God

See, David Lynch is a moralist. We can tell because many of his movies contain villains. Lost Highway has Mr. Eddy, Blue Velvet has Frank Booth, Wild at Heart has Marietta Fortune, and so on. Even in Lynch stories without a clearly identified villain, there is still tangible good and evil. His work is festooned with crime scenes, police, detectives, and forces opposing each other from purely moral standpoints.

The only trouble is, in Lynch’s movies, sometimes we get a good God and sometimes we get Cthulhu. We might get anything at all. Each Lynch movie functions as its own self-contained universe, with its own unique deity and its own moral code. It’s up to his characters to guess the rules and choose to follow them or not. What counts as a good deed in the Apollonian universe of Blue Velvet is a crime against nature in Mulholland Drive.

Now tell me I’m wrong. Well of course it looks that way to everybody else, because I’m doing exactly what David Lynch says to do...

> “A film is its own thing and in an ideal world I think a film should be discovered knowing nothing and nothing should be added to it and nothing should be subtracted from it.”

...over and over in interviews: Draw your own interpretation, play with this universe, build your own meaning inside mine. That’s how David Lynch says to treat his movies: You just cut them up like regular chickens.

Applying the Moralist Theory to Eraserhead:

Henry and Mary are Adam and Eve, the deformed guy in the planet is nature, and the whole story of the baby is mankind’s struggle to ascend to a higher being while still shackled to its animal origins. They get punished just for being human, but when you come down to it, aren’t we all? We have biological drives that demand to be met, reproducing is the only way to keep going, and to do so we have to engage in the messiest biology. Eraserhead is filled with cues, between the dog noisily nursing puppies, the seductive lady across the hall, the pervasive sperm motif, the supportive chubby-cheeked lady in the radiator who obligingly stomps on those sperm, to this theme of the difficultly of resolving our biological drives with our desire for dignity and self-respect.

Mary’s mother even chastises Henry when she interrogates him about his and Mary’s sex life. “You're in very bad trouble if you won't cooperate.” And if you look up David Lynch himself talking about what went into writing Eraserhead, he even says he read the Bible when woolgathering the script. How much more obvious does he have to be? Well, OK, he could be plenty more obvious, but if you learn to speak the language of visual poetry and symbolism, “inner knowingness” in his words, Lynch gets clearer in a big hurry.

But above all, the biggest fear humans have is losing our grip. We want to tell ourselves that we have a handle on things. We want to sort things into neat bins and whole numbers, but the universe gives us a planet that orbits its star every 365.256 days and says “LOL! Deal with it!” We want to get a degree and have a place in the world, marry and make a family, make plans and have them come through. And how many of those plans that we make as young adults work out when we’re 40, 60, 80? Why, for all the good our brains are, they might as well be filled with rubber and used for erasers - wait, that was the dream sequence, wasn’t it? Lynch’s talent is to show us what tiny, vulnerable bugs we are when the delusion of our order is pulled out from under us and we fall into the chaos of nature.

Kafka, Lovecraft, and Lynch would probably get along over coffee at least. Lynch even has a toasty, dark sense of humor. And the existential terror you feel when watching a Lynch movie certainly feels similar to what Lovecraft’s protagonists feel when they behold ancient cosmic horrors which twist their tiny minds just by trying to comprehend them.

The Most Perfect Nightmare Ever Filmed

Now crumple my theory up and throw it away and enjoy the movie your way. Eraserhead simply transcends film-making. Every scene is a signature, every moment is a finely crafted jewel that is found nowhere else, every character an unforgettable caricature. It gives us so many mind-screwing moments, it’s more of a Tilt-a-Whirl for your brain than a movie. We could go on gushing, but everybody gushes about this movie, don’t they?

You know what? I take the rest of that back. Eraserhead is a light-hearted family comedy about a bumbling young man and his long-suffering wife starting a family in the suburbs. Sue me.

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