Directed by David Lynch. USA. 1977.

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Reconsidering the Nightmare...

At a midnight screening in a Filmex cinema in Los Angeles, 1977, the premiere of Eraserhead heralded the career of the American director David Lynch. The popularity and cult status the low budget horror film gained acted as a stepping stone for Lynch, which propelled him on to create several mainstream films and television programmes, most notably the classic Blue Velvet and the series Twin Peaks. Part of Lynch’s appeal is that his unconventional, avant-garde style sits in opposition to the majority of mainstream cinema produced, instantly providing a startling and recognizable quality to his work. This individuality, however, can spell trouble for film studios, as Lynch’s 1985 science fiction movie, Dune, was to prove. As a box office failure, the films apparent shortcomings were to be explained by the studio’s ruthless cutting of the film from its original four-hour glory down to a meagre yet Hollywood friendly two hours, resulting in a fractured and incoherent narrative that was condemned to ruin. Yet however tumultuous his career may have been, his success in his more acclaimed films such as The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986) owe their technical prowess and symbolism to the highly innovative and surrealist debut film, Eraserhead, and it is this ‘dream of dark and troubling things’, as Lynch once referred to it, that I shall reconsider in this study.

After leaving the American Film institute in Los Angeles, Eraserhead was to be Lynch’s first successful film, and set forth the precedent for his inimitable nightmarish style, that whilst subtly threatening the subtext throughout his later films, is given full glorious reign in his debut effort. Set in a dystopic Industrial world, the story follows the main character of Henry (played by a veteran of Lynch’s films, the late actor Jack Nance) as he confronts his fears of fatherhood and yearns for a better life beyond the grave. Hailed by Newsweek as ‘The most original horror film in years’, Lynch exploits his talents for creating extremely disturbing and disorientating images to the full in Eraserhead, including the grotesque image of his new born baby and the squashing of foetuses under foot which could turn even the strongest of stomachs. To add to the fatalistic tone of the piece, it is entirely shot in black and white, emphasizing the bleakness of Henry’s life and giving the film a feeling of foreboding that is carried throughout by Lynch with his symbolic use of lighting and sound. Upon first viewing of Eraserhead, it can be a common reaction to feel isolated from the narrative, if even you manage to find one amongst the onslaught of images of despair and torment that are unashamedly played out towards the audience. It is an uncomfortable experience watching the film, but this, as most seasoned Lynch fans would agree with me, is part of the appeal of the director’s style. Eraserhead stands as an eloquent example of the creative synthesis and innovative stylistics of sound, lighting and image. With the black and white film stock serving to constantly reiterate the mechanized monotony of modern industrial life, Lynch experiments with previously hackneyed film techniques to produce the twisted vision that makes Eraserhead so unique. A prime example of this, and probably the most iconic image of the film which has now been immortalized onto posters that festoon the walls of student’s bedrooms (regardless of whether they have seen the film or not) is the close up headshot of Henry, with his wild upright hair alarming backlit. The illumination of his hair, not only creating an electrified look, reverses the Hollywood tradition of the romantic backlit shot, which was used to evoke sympathy in the audience, creating a soft, soothing halo around the character. Lynch employs this technique of over exposure to shocking effect and far from romanticizing Henry, pushes the viewer further away, possibly to safety it may sometimes feel, as they view his existentialist torment string itself out inside the dark and diseased space of his apartment.

Another accolade that Eraserhead must surely claim is its use of sound and genesis of Lynch’s long time collaboration with Alan R. Splet, who created all the sound for Lynch’s films up until his death in 1994. It is in Eraserhead that Lynch’s symbiotic use of sound and image comes into fruition, and sets the standard for his later films. Sound in Eraserhead is always present it could be said, even if you count the roaring silences which threaten at the sidelines of the story. In the background there can almost constantly be heard a low atonal hum, resonating and emanating an uneasy mixture of discordant noises and off pitch screeches.  As Henry starts to dream about the afterlife, the sound takes us through the image of the radiator, travelling all the way through to the dance hall stage where the nightmarish image of the deformed woman singing ‘In dreams’ off pitch fills the screen with a horrible vividness that threatens the reality of Henry’s predicament. It is this auditory distortion, so carefully crafted and produced by Splet and Lynch, which supports and extends the surreal and terrifying atmosphere of the film. The audience is confronted by this unceasing tale of terror and alienation, which whilst extremely hard to watch at times, becomes a fascinating and horrifying amalgam  - the cinematic equivalent of rubbernecking at the scene of a car crash. It is necessary to reevaluate Lynch’s debut, for it is a gem easily over looked by critics as they expound upon his more successful and mainstream efforts like Blue Velvet and the most recent Mulholland Drive (2001). The reason for this is that Eraserhead does not fit in easily with his later films, and could almost stand as a counterpoint to his second film The Elephant Man, although in truth the latter employs many of the visual and sound effects that were originally used in Lynch’s first film. Visually experimental and revolutionary at the time, Eraserhead at first glance may intimidate or baffle the audience because of its seemingly obscure and opaque storyline. However, this is not to connote that it does not have a clear line of narrative, but as Charles Drazin points out, 

‘Lynch’s films move at different speeds, reflecting different levels of anxiety. Eraserhead is stationary: Henry hardly strays out of his neighbourhood.’ (Quote from Blue Velvet by Charles Drazin, Bloomsbury 1998.)
Therefore when watching the film, the building tension and violence that is deftly alluded to through sound and imagery, is made all the worse by the static monotony of Henry. His room becomes a prison where he dreams of solace in death, yet is unable to be free from the shackles of his life, compounded by his terror at becoming a father to what can only be described as a monster.

Not a film for all the family, or for those who like their narrative straightforward and cheery. However if you want to be surprisingly disturbed by this unassuming film, and are interested to see how Lynch has ascended and grown artistically since this low budget debut which shot him to fame, then Eraserhead is definitely an experience to watch, and is doubtlessly one which you will be unable to forget for a long time after.

Lucy Reynolds
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