Genre: Horror | Fantasy
Director: David Lynch
Stars: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph
This film arrived at the threshold of my mind in a flaming brown paper bag, the remnants of which I am still trying to scrape off the bottom of my shoe. Its metaphorical, visual stench permeated my clothing and hair and left a burning trace of bile in the back of my throat. Eraserhead is the most appalling film I will ever encourage everyone to see. Except my Mother. I love my Mother and would never subject her to such things.
In his first feature length film, Director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Elephant Man, Twin Peaks (TV Series), Mulholland Drive) – with the backing of the American Film Institute – presents the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who exists in a bleak industrial environment and shares a one room apartment with the little woman who lives in his radiator. Henry knocks up his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) and together, at the urging of Mary’s awkward, undead-chicken-eating parents, attempt to care for their hideously disfigured offspring. No, I’m not making this shit up.
I had been familiar with this film for years. Not that I recalled anyone ever talking about it, or reading a single word of its bizarre plot. It’s almost as if the film exists in some collective cinema subconscious. I knew the title, Eraserhead. I knew it was weird. I even found the poster art as recognizable as any classic film, with a wide-eyed Henry Spencer sporting a white man’s version of a Kid ‘n Play afro. Yet none of that prepared me for how intensely off-putting this movie would be.
It was a book that finally brought me to this film. 500 Essential Cult Movies: The Ultimate Guide (Published by Sterling), had Eraserhead among its offerings. And during a weekend marathon of cult screenings, Hulu Plus prompted Eraserhead from my cue and I began an 83 minute lesson on why the genre is called horror. This is not horror in the traditional maniacal-slasher-stalker vs. virgin co-ed sense. This film is just down right disturbing.
Between the desolate, industrial landscape; the deeply flawed and uncomfortable characters; the sexual undertones (and not the good kind); the odd symbolism; the upsetting visual of a horribly mutated, suffering infant; and the deliberate, constant, unnerving hum of machinery, this film is presented as bottled futility. I was so negatively affected by this movie that I allowed it to abruptly end my weekend marathon and did not watch another movie for a week and a half. I felt unclean. The Monday after its viewing, in an attempt to convey my demonstrative frustrations, I went to work and angrily voiced my scathing review to my poor, unsuspecting co-workers as if I had been slighted by a cheating ex-lover.
Now by the sound of my description you may think that I hate this film. And I do. Hate this film. But in the days and weeks that followed my initial encounter and subsequent mental outburst, something peculiar happened. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Over and over again its visuals kept popping up in my mind. Like a stain on the carpet of your brain that you try to blot out with happier memories of anvil-dropping cartoons and commercial jingles, only to have it seep back through twenty years later when you find yourself rocking back and forth on a psychiatrist’s couch, cutting your own hair while singing, “In Heaven, everything is fine.” Could it be that this film that I hold in such contempt is actually…brilliant?
Eraserhead has been heralded by students of film for years for its thematic elements and achievements in sound design. The film has been preserved in the goddamn National Film Registry in the United States Library of Congress for Christ’s sake! So where is the appeal of this film? Why, after everything I’ve written here would I recommend you see this movie?
What becomes so appealing about a film that is so deplorable is the fact that it stays with you. And is that not the purpose of a true work of art? Art’s intention should always be to promote passion and emotion, and inspire a dialogue. Good or bad, however a work of art makes you feel, if it lingers, if it compels you to angrily spew your distain to co-workers, then it should be considered nothing short of successful. So bravo Mr. Lynch. Emotional scarring, thy name is Eraserhead. My therapist says this is a huge breakthrough for me.
So grab your closest friends and have yourselves a movie night. A little wine, a little cheese, a little manic-depressive psychosis. It’ll be fun! Some of you may love it; some of you may hate it. However you weave Eraserhead into the fabric of your psyche, I guarantee your topic of discussion will be set for the rest of the evening. And that’s where the real fun begins. So talk on my fellow cinephiles. Talk on.