One cannot think of “strange” cinema without thinking of David Lynch. While I wouldn’t say that Lynch created the surrealist genre, rather inheriting it from the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky, he certainly did popularize it and put his own unique spin on it that gave us the defining look that we now know by the term “Lynchian” – and he has ascended to become quite possibly the greatest living filmmaker, and one of the most incredible cinematic visionaries to ever live. It is important to realize where his roots lie, and while technically in order to do so, we should look at his early short films, I believe it was Eraserhead that helped define Lynch and launched his career as one of the most wonderfully weird filmmakers of all time.
Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a lonely young man. He lives in a large city that is more machine than it is a place where people live and work. He lives alone, but he somehow has a girlfriend, known as Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and it is revealed that Henry and Mary X are having a child as a result of their pre-marital relations, which is the subject of revilement from Mary’s mother. The baby was born before Henry even knew he was the father, and it turns out that their bundle of joy is nothing more than a deformed, grotesque creature that rejects all food and just wails all day and night. When Mary X leaves as a result of her inability to handle the infant’s caterwauling, it is up to Henry to raise the child – but his sheer horror at having fathered such a macabre creature only raises his social anxiety, and he becomes delusional with waking nightmares, which are somehow more realistic and pleasant than his actual reality.
I’ll be perfectly blunt – Eraserhead is a truly disturbing film. It is hopelessly demented and very disturbing in so many ways. It left me completely cold and feeling a little sick, because it truly is a film that freaked me out beyond belief. Yet, how can anyone knowingly go into a film by David Lynch, especially his first, low-budget film, and not expect to be thoroughly and absolutely repulsed? I wouldn’t dare let this very natural response distract from the fact that Eraserhead is one of the most important films ever made, and as an advocate for independent cinema, I would be foolish to not acknowledge the sheer brilliance of this film. I just want to warn anyone that might not actually understand the sheer scope of this film – it will leave you very disturbed. If someone can get around the fact that this is a very uniquely disgusting film, then they will be well-off in venturing into the twisted world of Eraserhead.
Jack Nance was such a treasure of an actor – it is a pity he never managed to become more of a recognizable actor, usually occupying positions of minor supporting characters. Yet, David Lynch was the person who gave him his career, and the one person who knew how to use him well (I will never forget his true brilliance as Pete Martell in Twin Peaks, one of the most wonderful supporting performances in any television show) – Eraserhead was as much a passion project for Nance as it was for Lynch. The fact of the matter is despite their friendship playing a major part, the role of Henry Spencer could never believably be played by a known actor – just imagine Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman in the role – it would result in something unbelievable and far from being as intriguing as Eraserhead ended up being. The unknown factor plays a huge role in many independent films, because it gives a sense of gritty realism to the performance. Henry Spencer is one of the truly great horror performances, mainly because of her internal and quiet his performance is. Nance speaks very little, and lets his body language, facial expressions and various reactions to the events of this film speak for themselves. It is a very quiet, nuanced performance that is made all the more wonderful by the fact that Nance was able to capitalize on the most intricate delicacies of this role to make it so real.
Another thing about Eraserhead is that despite being obscure in its time, it has grown to become a classic of cult horror. Unlike many cult horror films that ascend to that status through being outrageous or campy, Eraserhead has something going for it that very few horror films, whether cult or mainstream, do not – it is a genuinely terrifying film. It doesn’t rely on jump-scares, nor does it overuse the suspense the audience feels. It doesn’t aim to gross the audience out, nor does it want to be particularly scary in the way that the vast majority of horror films are. It instead wants to reflect the true horrors that exist within the human mind, and create the same dreamlike atmosphere that many surrealists try and evoke. It is an unsettling, dark and terrifying film that is so bleak, it feels almost inescapable – and if its the job of filmmakers to create true emotional reactions in the viewers, then Eraserhead certainly achieves that in bundles.
Eraserhead achieves its unsettling atmosphere through some truly extraordinary technical and creative work – there is absolutely no reason why a film with a small budget cannot be absolutely magnificent – and there is something charming about the low-budget technique of Eraserhead. There is not a single moment that this film seems cheap or like it cut corners. It is a beautifully made film, but its roots as the debut of a struggling artist are clear, but they do not detract from the overall atmosphere of this film. The score is as much a character in this film as the actors, and it evades throughout, creating a sense of terror. The production design also contributes, creating an uneasy and very uncanny portrayal of the city and of the mind – I am reminded of the great horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is equally as terrifying. The perfect blend of technique and creativity makes this such an incredible film – and we are able to see both sides of Lynch – the artist and the filmmaker. Eraserhead is worth it merely for the fact that it is unlike anything you will ever see, visually. I will leave out any discussion of the actual infant, because everyone deserves to be horrified by seeing it for the first time without any preconceived notion of what it looks like.
Eraserhead is a brilliant film. It may not be as good as Lynch was in his peak, but then again no one can reach his heights. It is an audacious debut with a suitably disturbing premise and a great central performance from Jack Nance. It is well-made, and it is so genuinely terrifying. I am still reeling from watching it for a third time, as it never gets any less shocking or horrifying. I love it, and it proves why David Lynch is a true master. It deserves its place as a cult classic – but like many cult classics, it isn’t for everyone – don’t say I didn’t warn you.