David Lynch’s surrealist body horror is 40 this year. It’s an age-old tale of boy meets girl, has mutated baby… and Lucy Reynolds simply cannot get enough of it.
Do you love films that leave you with such a warm life-affirming feeling that you leave the cinema with a song in your heart and a skip in your step? Yes? Then don’t watch Eraserhead. This film is not for you. Leave it alone. There ain’t no dancing Ryan Goslings here, sweet cheeks.
However, if you love movies that totally baffle, disturb and haunt your every thought, then David Lynch’s surreal 1977 film will open your eyes to a nightmarish world you never knew existed, and hope never will… though with Trump’s imminent presidency, it feels we’re not too far from Lynchian times.
I first encountered Eraserhead courtesy of my mum who, unlike most mothers of 12-year-olds, would tape weird horror films that were on in the wee hours of the morning so we could watch them together (#bestmumever). We both had, and still have, a passion for anything creepy and, boy, did we hit the creepster jackpot with Eraserhead.
On first viewing, neither of us really knew how to react to the big ball of visual lunacy. We were stunned. We watched it again. Still no answers, just absolute bewitchment. Since then, I must have watched it another 20 times over the past couple of decades and it never loses its eerie charm. And I’m nowhere near closer to working out what it’s about, which I think is exactly what Lynch wanted.
Eraserhead is the epitome of ‘indie’. It was Lynch’s first feature length film, made for next to nothing (in movie terms) over a period of five years due to financial difficulties.
“Yes, you get to see why it is called Eraserhead, but I’ll leave you to find that out for yourself if you’ve managed to sit through the weirdest 1 hour 49 minutes of your life.”
A hitherto unknown director, Lynch’s strange celluloid became a slow-burn cult classic through word of mouth and limited theatrical release as a ‘midnight movie’. One of these late-night screenings was attended by actor and director Mel Brooks who then persuaded Lynch to direct The Elephant Man (1980).
From there, Lynch made his name as one of the most sought after and influential American directors. Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet stand as some of his most successful and critically acclaimed creations, but it really is Eraserhead that shows the young Lynch at his most raw, aesthetic and conceptually inspiring.
How to even start to tell you what it’s about… Lynch has never gone on record to explain the meaning behind the monstrous world he created, so it really is up to the viewer to make what they will of the film.
It centres on downtrodden Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), all wide eyed, bouffant haired and perpetually terrified, as he finds out that his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) has invited him to dinner with her parents. During an awkward dinner, where the carving of the chicken ends up with the bird writhing on the plate and spewing black slime, Henry is cornered by Mary’s mother who tells him Mary has given birth to his child, although she’s not sure whether it is a child at all.
Anyone else’s eldritch spidey senses flaring up? Being a decent chap, Henry decides to support Mary and moves into a small flat with her and the baby. By baby, I mean a squalling, bug-eyed mutant that was rumoured to be a real embalmed lamb foetus.
The baby cries constantly, refusing food and screaming out in pain. Unable to take it anymore, Mary X leaves Henry to cope, leading to a most disturbing and memorable dream sequence where the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) sings In Heaven while squashing giant sperm-like creatures that drip from the ceiling, her bloated cheeks grotesquely pock marked, resembling a cauliflower (Normal night out in Leeds, if I’m honest).
The ending becomes even more harrowing, and yes, you get to see why it is called Eraserhead, but I’ll leave you to find that out for yourself if you’ve managed to sit through the weirdest 1 hour 49 minutes of your life.
There are many clues linking the film to Lynch’s own experiences of fatherhood and the fear that goes along with such overwhelming responsibility. His daughter, Jennifer, who made a brief appearance in Eraserhead but was cut from the final version, was born with two severely clubbed feet, so the deformed appearance of the baby in the film could be a reference to this.
The film’s bleak industrial landscape has often been compared to Lynch’s tough upbringing in Philadelphia. The foreboding mood is underlined by an atonal mechanical soundtrack created by sound designer Alan Splet.
Still, it remains a film that defies categorisation because it’s unlike anything made before and even possibly since. Yes, it’s 40 years old but it hasn’t dated a bit – creepy, it seems, don’t crack.
It is not a date movie, I’ll give you that, but it is one of the most intriguing and haunting films you’ll ever see and remains one of my firm favourites that’s stayed with me for more than 20 years.
Sit back, watch it and prepare to have wonderful nightmares about roast chicken and cauliflower – just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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Lucy is a teacher whose dream as a child was to be WWE Wrestling Champion. That dream is still alive.