(1977, David Lynch)
“I don’t know much of anything”
David Lynch is a strange, strange man. We’ve seen him once before, with The Elephant Man, but that was an anomaly in his film history. He’s better known as the man who makes painfully obtuse movies, films that are so dream-like and filled with strange disjointed imagery that it could take forever to decipher it all. Mulholland Drive saw him dropping Naomi Watts into an unexpected lesbian relationship and suddenly changing her character’s name and personality out of nowhere, while TV series Twin Peaks is best remembered for a backwards-talking midget and an FBI agent obsessed with cherry pie.
But even those are tame in comparison to his debut movie, Eraserhead. You want strange, disjointed imagery? You’ve got it! A plot that makes little to no sense? Absolutely! Dream-like qualities? Of course! But while Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive strived to ground themselves in some kind of reality – Twin Peaks was essentially a soap opera while Mulholland was largely a Hollywood mystery movie – Eraserhead doesn’t. It’s right out there in a world of its own, operating entirely on its own rules.
Trying to explain the plot of this movie is difficult, but I’ll try. Essentially we have Henry (Jack Nance, credited here as John for some reason), a printer who is “on vacation” for the entire movie. He receives a phone call from someone called Mary, who we learn is his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend…it’s hard to tell) and she’s recently given birth to their child. At least, they think it’s a child anyway. So they get married and move in together, and look after their…aborted cow/E.T. foetus…thing. There’s also a hamster-cheeked woman living in Henry’s radiator and a man pulling levers in a planet he alone occupies. Making sense? No? Good, then we’re on the right track.
This movie is basically one huge surreal nightmare. There is little semblance of plot structure, and everything here is just plain weird. I expected weird, since it’s a David Lynch movie, but this is right out there. Opening on a close-up of Jack Nance’s face while sperm-like worms wriggle across the screen, it leads into a series of scenes where Nance walks through a desolate urban area while the soundtrack plays nothing but dissonant noise. There’s barely any dialogue for much of the movie, and that dissonant noise seemingly fades in and out throughout the entire ninety minutes.
Eraserhead is naturally a challenge to watch. It doesn’t want to try and be like any other movie, and while it makes little sense, it’s oddly intriguing. I criticised Videodrome for spending so much time being obtuse and nonsensical, so to praise Eraserhead for doing the same seems a bit weird, but where Lynch differed from Cronenberg is in the ability to make everything feel intensely dreamlike. The movie feels like it’s in someone’s head, far removed from anything resembling reality, and that works to its benefit.
What’s more, where Videodrome annoyed me was in the inability to anchor the events to some sort of interpretation or conclusion. Stuff just happened, and it contradicted everything else around it, whereas Eraserhead could potentially be about the fear of conception (those sperm-like worms and the freaky baby actually connect quite well) with a little bit of allegory towards social anxiety in place too (particularly as the dissonant noise seems to get louder during the awkward interactions with Mary’s family). Sure, this doesn’t go all the way to explaining everything that happens, but it helps. And I’d rather a giant alien baby head than a stomach vagina.
It’s so hard to judge Eraserhead though. It’s a great experiment in film-making and while it is difficult, it is interesting. I still have no idea what I watched, but I liked it….I think. It’s certainly a movie that left me wondering, in a good way, what it all meant. Sure, not everyone will take to it that easily, but it’s clear that Lynch doesn’t care. He wants to leave people baffled, and the fact that he refuses to explain the movie so many years later is proof of this.
The film will appeal to two groups of people. The first is the type of person who likes experimental film-making, the kind of person who enjoys picking apart a movie and analysing what the hell happened. Yes, I’m in this group. The other is the horror movie fan, who will love this movie just because of how goddamn creepy it is. The limbless baby, the freaky-looking Lady In The Radiator, the surreal animated sequence involving what appears to be a dancing worm, the miniature roast chickens leaking mysterious dark fluids, it all adds up to one of the most unsettling looking movies ever made.
It’s not one of Lynch’s best though. It does show its age, since a few of the effects do look a little ropey now. And the lack of a real coherent plot can be a little taxing at times. Personally I’m more of a fan of Mulholland Drive, but this is definitely a real indicator of Lynch’s style. It’s fascinating and creepy, and if you can make it through this OK, you may well like the rest of his output (except maybe Dune, but not even Lynch likes that).
So if you’re looking for something to mess with your head and creep you out a little, you could do worse than giving this a watch.
Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart & Jeanne Bates
Written and produced by David Lynch
Cinematography by Herbert Cardwell & Frederick Elmes
Edited by David Lynch
Favourite Scene: The surreal dream sequence where Henry’s head is replaced with that of the baby’s is unsettling in the best way possible.
Scene That Bugged Me: I genuinely didn’t like the mini-chickens. That was just unpleasant.
Watch it if: You like to delve deep into movie symbolism
Avoid it if: You want something a little more coherent