Sunday, December 04, 2005

Eraserhead, and thoughts on horror films

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.


  1. i *heart* david lynch!!! are you a member of his website?

  2. excellent write-up jai! Eraserhead is one of my all time favourite films. With Blue Velvet it must surely be in my all time top-ten.

    although i don't agree with you when you say that horror films affect people "only when they are watching it but then emerging from the hall and dismissing the film as nothing more than fantasist entertainment."

    This might be true for movies which rely on cheap and lazy tricks to scare but definitely not movies like Eraserhead which affect at a deeper, even at subconscious level. It just stays no matter how hard you try. In fact this one of the key problems I have with comic books and fantasy films. The effect just doesn't stay. Good horror movies don't belong there. They are real even when they look like fantasies that's why they horrify.

    Also calling that hideous reptilian thing a "monster-baby" is huge understatement :)

    One small correction, the name of the hero is Jack Nance not John.

  3. This was one horror film I recently saw, on big screen. And it forced me to do what I had never done before -- close my eyes and press my ears, even though Mozart's Requiem was on the soundtrack...

    i tried very hard to forget, but it stayed for a week. Now, after two months, I can take a detached look and call it a masterpiece :)

  4. Shruti: No I’m not. How does one go about it?

    Alok: Thanks. I have to get the Blue Velvet DVD sometime, I saw the film a long time ago and on a print that wasn’t great.

    What I meant was that horror films are very vulnerable to genre-snobbery. Check the Emerson piece – he puts it much better. People do tend to put cerebra before instinct when it comes to appreciating a great horror film. (Even with Eraserhead, I’m sure there are viewers who have dismissed it out of hand without paying heed to the ways it affected them at a deeper level.)

    The name is John Nance, by the way – at least the DVD says so. Jack is of course a nickname for John so maybe he was known that way too.

  5. well, the usual way: you pay up! go to it's pretty cool, you get to see his early experiments and also an animated series he's made called 'dumbland'

    have you seen 'twin peaks'??? (it's genius) that, blue velvet and elephant man are my favourites... i've been trying to get hold of the other dvds lately but it's difficult. :( think i shall send the next relative going to england tramping along to fopp!

  6. I recently picked up "Twin Peaks: Fire walk with me", the prequel to the "Twin Peaks" series..haven't watched it yet, but I have heard very bad things about it..David Lynch I think evokes extreme reactions. I have watched "Mullholland Dr." many,many times and love it (small nitpick: the song is "Silencio", not "Silencia")..

  7. Great post, Jabberwock.

    IMO, Lynch's films are mindfuck-scary because they are inexplicable.

    Sadly, 99.99% of horror films these days adopt the "procedural" tone, making them dull just 2 minutes after leaving the theater.

    Nic Roeg's "Don't Look Now" comes very close to being a great horror film....and regardless of what people say about "Blair Witch Project", it is a very good horror film because it resists explaining too much.


  8. Yeah. I read the article after posting the comment :)

    i think the only problem with Horror genre is that there is just too much trash. for every lynch or cronenberg there are thousands of frauds who have no interest in exploring complex ideas or subtexts. And stupid and bored teenagers, who are metaphorically challenged anyway, in the name of appreciating "cult" movies, consume these mindless stuff and give them respectibility that they don't generally deserve.

    Docs Dope: looking at your blog, you look like one of the characters from a david lynch film :)

  9. Hi,
    I was just about to say what 'cinephile' said about 'Odishon... if you're into these movies, then this one shouldnt be missed.

    Also I just watched a documentary on Lynch called 'Pretty as a picture: The art of David Lynch'...really cool.

    And about the significance of Eraserhead, I havent watched it yet but I've seen Mulholland Dr. and Blue Velvet, and I think with Lynch, its just these ideas that pop into his head...and he projects them onto his paintings, his cinema or even his animation. And I mean exactly those ideas... I dont think even he knows the significance of these 'visions' and I think he conciously chooses not to search for a definitive, conclusive explanation. I think he's just sharing his ideas as they come to him...and sharing the effect they have on him, as in, we feel the same way - scarred, touched, shaken.

  10. what do you think of 'house of 1000 corpses', as a horror flick aficionado? i chanced upon it on tv it one rainy day (off-season goa holiday) and my french friends (who didnt understand a word) and i (") were transfixed.

    and that fire walk with me is crap! it was made after all the genius of twin peaks had played out, just to capitalise on the cult favourite status it was rapidly reaching.

    and this is a side note but ick, i was mortified when this so-called lynch fan im acquainted with claimed that'desperate housewives' is like twin peaks, twisted soap opera etc. etc. why intellectualise it?! they sure dont! it's just pure spectacle. with less depth than a patina of dust.

  11. I knw ancient post but saw Eraserhead and well I had to comment. My roomie said lets go watch and I went onto watch one of the most bizarre,weird and strangely unsettling movies I have ever seen. I mean I had to come online to check what the f the movie was abt.Could not make head or tail of it. Understood some aspects and the kid cryng creeped the shit out of me. But apart from fascinated me coz it made me think abt the man who made the movie and how differently he thinks abt things!

  12. Haven't seen eraserhead. Did you see mulholland drive and reviewed it somewhere?