David Lynch‘s art house 1977 first feature “Eraserhead,” the first of the director’s features to make the collection debuts this month. The film will be displayed on a new 4K digital restoration, along with new restorations of six Lynch shorts (1966’s “Six Figures Getting Sick,” 1968’s ‘The Alphabet,” 1970’s “The Grandmother,” 1974’s “The Amputee Part 1 and 2,” and 1996’s “Premonitions Following An Evil Deed,” plus interviews and a 2001 documentary by Lynch called “Eraserhead Stories.” The Criterion edition releases on September 16th, 2014.
Eraserhead Review by Steve Beard
The feature debut of David Lynch, Eraserhead is an unsettling and surreal journey, like looking into a mirror and seeing someone else’s reflection. Floating in an inky nothingness, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) appears serene but concerned. A rock appears superimposed over his features, with him yet elsewhere. Inside the pockmarked planet a man (Jack Fisk) exists, alternately staring intently out of his grimy window or considering the array of signal-box levers in front of him. Henry’s mouth slowly opens, disgorging a pallid, stringy worm-like creature. Stung into action, the man in the planet grasps his levers and briefly struggles with them. The worm is cast into a muddy puddle, leaving Henry as he was before. Welcome to the world of Eraserhead.
Henry is actually a printer, in Lepell’s factory, and this is his vacation, though judging by the fact that he hasn’t gone anywhere, his circle of friends must be somewhat limited. Trudging through the slag-heaps of a deserted and poisoned industrial landscape, he looks sad indeed. Incredibly though, this is where Henry lives, in a dusty old apartment block. There’s no mail to lighten his day, so Henry makes for his bare, impersonal room. A surprise awaits though, when the beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts) tells Henry that his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) called, inviting him to dinner. Finally he’ll get to meet Mr. X (Allen Joseph) and Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates), an idea that makes Henry feel rather apprehensive. What Henry doesn’t know is that he’s about to become a father, a circumstance which will inevitably lead to marriage.
While Eraserhead is filled with often baffling imagery, this openness has the effect of making the film amenable to a variety of different interpretations. In direct contrast to the railroad plots of most Hollywood movies, Lynch allows its symbolism to impact upon each viewer in a unique fashion (although it’s still possible to identify core themes). What makes Eraserhead special is that such flexibility doesn’t equate to uncertainty in Lynch’s vision. His aim remains true throughout, despite the five year gestation. Note: To discuss the meaning and symbolism of Eraserhead in any greater detail, extensive spoilers are unavoidable.
Underlying Henry’s dreams, actions and behaviour when faced with his mutant baby are deep-seated fears. Isolated from human contact for so long, he is plagued by the difficulties of committing to a relationship with Mary, the responsibilities of fatherhood and a marriage which has been forced upon him. With no one to talk to (since Mary has returned to her parents and the Girl Across the Hall rejects his advances before he gets even that far), small problems become overwhelming, leading to a loss of hope and despair. Like many would do when faced with such solitude and a desperately ill baby, Henry’s thoughts turn to the “easy way out” of suicide. In his mind, the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) sings of how everything in heaven is fine, an attractive proposition. Hence, when Henry merely glances at the radiator, he is shuffling closer to the edge.
On a more tenuous level, the man in the planet is some form of god who either looks after or controls Henry. The twisted worm plucked from Henry has great similarities to a deformed sperm (which would explain Henry and Mary’s repulsive offspring), though it may also represent the inner sin which preys upon his mind (the fateful sexual intercourse which Mrs. X so forcefully confronts Henry with). The entire X family are both troubling and fascinating, from spastic Mary to her madly grinning father and immobile (possibly dead) grandmother. Perhaps they are the “natural” result of existing in an abandoned industrial zone (the most normal member of the household is the bitch and her loudly suckling puppies, presaging the announcement to come).
Technically, Eraserhead is an edifying combination of talent, effort, minimal budget and sheer determination. Shot on black & white stock, excellent use is made of light and darkness, contrasts, shadow and texture to enhance the atmosphere. Elements of early European horror are inescapably obvious, while it’s in the intangible symbolism that Bunuel and the avant-garde comes to mind. In harmony with the visuals, Lynch makes exquisite use of the available sonic landscape. A procession of sounds (hums, clanks, rumbles, squeaks and cries) fill in for the lack of dialogue, suggesting an all-encompassing technological nightmare. People like Henry are cogs in a world of steam, fire and coughing pipes (contributing to his alienation). However, Eraserhead is not a film that you can watch and expect to be mindlessly entertained by.