Eraserhead is a black and white film made in 1977, directed and written by David Lynch.
I remember sitting in my friend’s house one day, and he insisted for me watch this movie. I understood at the time that it was considered a cult classic film, but I haven’t read or seen anything about it so I had no idea what I was getting into.
So, what is there to know about this film?
My experience was pretty odd, given the fact that most people who watch it now read about it firsthand, and this is by no means a conventional film.
It’s supposed to be a horror movie, but its main element is surrealism. Personally, I can’t really say I’m a fan of art-house movies, or avant-garde films, and this can easily fit in either. There’s just lots, and lots of symbolism, and the dialogue is kept at minimum. To break the plot down would actually be pretty simple (spoilers ahead):
In a surrealist world, the main character Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance) has sex with his girlfriend Mary (played by Charlotte Stewart) who then invites him to dinner with her family.
After an odd series of events at the dinner, which involves the mother of Mary cornering Henry and asking him if they had sex after trying to kiss him, the couple then are found to be living together at Henry’s apartment taking care of a deformed creature which appears to be their baby. Mary cannot tolerate the “baby's” crying and caring during the night and she decides to leave Henry, leaving him to take care of the baby alone.
Henry begins to have strange hallucinations/visions. Then at some point, a woman who lives across Spencer apartment asks him if she can spend the night there, and they end up having sex. Henry then experience more hallucinations, including a sort of allegory of the movie’s title.
Later on, Henry finds the woman who lives in front with an older man and he returns frustrated to his apartment, with the deformed child. A very shocking scene finds Henry taking a pair of scissors and cuts the creature’s swaddling which actually was keeping its organs together, leaving it exposed. Then Henry cuts one of its organs and then it starts gushing liquids and the creature then gets wrapped in some sort of foam. After that a series of strange events happen in the room, and then the film ends with yet more surrealist scenes.
Watching this film is basically entering a different world; Odd, awkward, funny at times, scary at others, nonsensical, and just weird overall. To me the cinematography felt very claustrophobic, every scene feels shot as if all is shot in four walls.
The scenarios are very industrial, the world looks very metallic, raw and there’s are electric charges and such throughout the film. Some objects in the background don’t make sense, like the notorious pile of dirt with dry plants in Henry’s apartment. There are long pauses at several scenes, so there are lots of droning and repetitive elements. The dialogues are often awkward and strange, and there’s a very characteristic background noise throughout the film, with very little soundtrack on the background.
I’m going to copy here what David Lynch said about his movie, in a 2014 interview:
I know you don’t like to speculate publicly about what Eraserhead means, but why do you think it still resonates for people today, after all these years?
Well, you know, it’s difficult to say. I always say the same thing: Every viewer is different. People go into a world and they have an experience, and they bring so much of what makes them react, it’s already inside of them. Each viewer gets a different thing from every film. So there are some people where Eraserhead speaks to them, and others it doesn’t speak to them at all. It’s just the way it goes.
What’s the strangest thing anyone has ever said to you about Eraserhead?
I like to have people be able to form their own opinion as to what it means and have their own ideas about things. But at the same time, no one, to my knowledge, has ever seen the film the way I see it. The interpretation of what it’s all about has never been my interpretation.
So there’s definitely a purpose to this film, and all the symbolism and the actual meaning of the film hasn’t really been disclosed by David Lynch. At the same time, the film is supposed to elicit different meanings individually, and people can interpret many elements of the film as they perceive it at the moment.
Some scenes have a more clear meaning, like the introduction for example, but lots of it doesn't. I know there were a few scenes that definitely stroke a chord with me, and I could easily identify or envisioned some of the elements my own way; But where do I fit with the film speaking to some of the viewers or not?
I’m the guy this sort of thing doesn’t speak to. As I said, I’m not particularly a fan of art-house movies or avant-garde films. With that said, there are lots of low budget movies I enjoy, and some movies that experiment with surrealism do speak to me. I grew up with Stanley Kubrick movies and I'm a fan of most of his work, and I’m also a BIG fan of all Dario Argento's work. The reason I mention this is because I want to clarify I’m not a Michael Bay-type movie fan (even though I’m guilty of enjoying superhero movies, and the occasional action flick).
One thing I didn’t like is that the film feels rather slow. After watching this movie, I could easily watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture again (which is usually considered a slow film) and perceive it much faster paced, which is saying a lot. The long pauses get staggering at some point and I honestly was starting to get bored, until probably half the movie where it gets a bit emotional and I started to get involved again.
Sure, you can entertain the subconscious thoughts that some elements of the film may give you, but maybe I’m just not a fan of that sort of thing. I guess I need a bit more of plot focus to enjoy a movie even though, at least where it concerns the main character, this has plenty of character development.
The ending was a definitely a disappointing to me, and even if I didn’t expect an epic or bombastic ending for a movie like this, I thought it would end differently. I would have preferred to end the movie uncomfortable rather than puzzled, with yet another surrealist scene that may give the film different possible answers to possible questions, if that makes sense. I don’t consider the movie to give any proper hint of an answer (purposely so, as it appears) which left me a tad disappointed.
On the flipside, I think Jack Nuance did a great job here. I think his uncomfortable mood and expressions throughout the movie were very interesting, and he definitely felt lost and troubled, even though calmed, in this weird surrealist universe.
The practical effects, especially the deformed “baby”, look great and it reminded me of other great practical effects like those of “The Thing”. I even read afterwards, that there is some controversy with how the effect of the strange creature was done, which a lot of people speculate they used an actual dead rabbit to create it.
Do I recommend this film?
Well, I’m definitely up to give it a second go, I’m not one to write off a movie at first watch unless it truly makes me hate it. There are a few things I personally enjoyed, adding that I really liked the cinematography.
As for the praise and the cult follow the movie has earned over the years it leaves me very puzzled. I just don’t see the big appeal of it. I can see the universal acclaim some movies like Ridley’s Scott “Alien” have, but this isn’t one of them.
Horror films, whether they come in a form of Sci-Fi, crime, surrealism, psychological terror or the usual tales of haunted houses and demons/spirits speak differently to many people, so for that reason alone I still recommend it. At least its weird and unconventional, and for that I think it deserves at least one watch, even for people who aren't fans of avant-garde movies.