Watching David Lynch’s Eraserhead, I realised how wantonly we overuse words like “bizarre”, “unsettling” or “unnerving” when describing even moderately unusual films. But this 1976 feature is a movie that really does fit those descriptions. It’s a film that seems to directly address your subconscious: for days after you’ve put it out of your mind (having decided either that it was intriguing in an abstruse sort of way, or that it was stark and brilliant, or just pretentious arty nonsense), you’ll find sounds, images and ideas from the movie coming back to you when you least expect it.
I found myself thinking about factory workers living drab lives in dilapidated apartment blocks; about families sitting down to dinner together with nothing much to say to each other; about the fear of sex and the responsibilities that parenthood brings; about the terror of oblivion –that nothing will remain of us one day, that we will be no more significant than pencil shavings drifting through the air. (And then of course my conscious mind regains control and I wonder how appropriate it is to place a cult movie alongside Hamlet’s “what dreams may come…”)
Is Eraserhead explicitly about any of those things? No it isn’t. It’s a film that will confound and annoy you if you have no time for ideas being conveyed in fragments rather than in readily understandable wholes; or if you believe that what can’t be explained in straightforward terms must necessarily be pretentious (like a Dylan lyric from Blonde on Blonde, or the Dali-Bunuel collaboration on Un Chien Andalou). For that reason, no synopsis can do justice to this film, but here’s an obligatory one anyway. It begins with a distorted shot of the protagonist Henry (played by the remarkable John Nance, a perpetually startled expression on his face, with a shock of hair that will remind you of Elsa Lanchester as the bride of Frankenstein). His eyes are open but he’s clearly dreaming: he sees the moon hanging ominously behind his head; a scarred man pulling at levers; Henry opens his mouth and a slimy, sperm-shaped creature emerges and slithers off into the unknown.
The dream ends, but the “real” world is scarcely less strange. In stark black-and-white cinematography that recalls the Expressionist films of the 1920s, we see the wide-eyed Henry making his way home through a bleak, water pipe-ridden landscape as industrial noises (which we will soon realise form the film’s soundtrack) play in the background. The constant hum of machinery, whirrs and clangs, the sound of static – all of it adds up to something that could have been composed by the early Pink Floyd or even Depeche Mode, only much spookier. (Which also reminds me that many brilliant MTV skits/animated fillers have been inspired by scenes from this film.)
Henry learns that a girl he once knew, Mary, has invited him to her house for dinner. He goes there, meets her strange parents, is asked to carve up the chicken at the table; the headless chicken performs a little dance on the plate (another MTV moment). Henry learns that Mary has delivered his child – or at least something that might be a child. He marries her, they stay together in his shabby little flat as the monster-baby (a creepier version of baby E.T.) wails the nights away. Mary goes away, leaving Henry holding the baby. He dreams again, this time about a factory where his head is being turned into a pencil-eraser. He enters his radiator, where a timid bearded lady is singing a plaintive song with the refrain “In heaven, everything is fine…”
Eraserhead isn’t a horror film in some of the more obvious ways. There isn’t a single jump-out-of-your-seat moment (though of course if you don’t know this, you’ll be frightened enough just anticipating one). There are two intensely gory scenes but they unfold slowly, so that you’ll have plenty of time to look away from the screen if such things make you cringe. However, it fits into the best horror tradition in the sense that it seems to come from an entirely different world from the one we know – and more importantly, that the film itself completely believes in this world. The characters may be bemused about some of the goings-on, but the movie stays true to itself; it never wavers, never seems to think of itself as strange.
The great horror movies carry a conviction that often attains the intensity of a paean. To a greater extent than any other film genre, horror delineates a whole new universe with its own set of rules: a good horror film, even one that’s located in a familiar setting and has no obviously supernatural elements, will feel weirder and more self-contained than even a sci-fi/fantasy movie that really is set on, say, Middle-Earth or Narnia or the moons of Jupiter. If the film does these things well, the audience will go along with the conviction and get sucked into its very particular world. This is one reason for that common movie-going phenomenon of people being genuinely scared and affected by a horror film while they are actually watching it, but then emerging from the hall and dismissing the film as nothing more than fantasist entertainment. (Here's an excellent related essay by Jim Emerson.)
P.S. Eraserhead is also interesting for the way it foreshadows many themes and visual motifs in the career of David Lynch, one of the most provocative directors of the past 30 years: disfigurement (which he would tackle brilliantly in The Elephant Man, a few years later); a nightmare world existing just beneath the surface of the real one (which is given an almost garishly literal treatment in Blue Velvet). And the bearded lady’s song always reminds me of the haunting “Silencia” number in Mulholland Drive.