David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) is a genuinely haunting film. It is presented as a fever dream of confusion and disgust which explores both the horrors of parenthood and the cruelty of the modern world. The style Lynch uses to creates his inhuman world evokes a mood in a way that has never really been replicated since.
The film follows Henry, a printer who lives in a bedsit in a nightmarish industrial wasteland, who finds himself increasingly disturbed and oppressed by his deformed and premature child. Throughout the film he is haunted by surreal visions and incidents; nature creeping into his bedroom, his baby mocking his impotence and a woman in his radiator.
The film can, in two ways, be seen as primarily about alienation; about the creations of humanity coming back and haunting him. This is first manifested in the cruel industrial environment; the machines designed to improve the lives of people become the gods they subject themselves to. This manifests secondly in the child: the product of Henry’s fertility becomes a force which disturbs and entraps him.
From the start, the industrial environment is suggested to be maddening. Each character has their own pathology: Henry has his stoical despair, his wife Mary her hysterical sadness, and her father his manic resentment. The sense that people have been commodified and degraded is shown in a surreal scene in which Henry’s head is sold to a pencil manufacturer so that his brains can be turned into erasers (hence the film’s title).
Despite the film’s focus on his ability to reproduce, Henry’s impotence, as well as his shame and unfulfilled desire, form a running theme. The baby’s crying prevents Henry from consummating a relationship, and it laughs mockingly at his failed attempted to reach out to a woman that lives next door.
The most unique thing about this film is its style, and particularly the way in which the style evokes this unsettling mood. The sound design, which Lynch himself contributed to greatly, is central to this. The film contains almost constant low-level noise. This is either the rumbling of industrial production, an electrical hiss, or the endless howling of the wind. Wordless scenes are not silent. Even the indoor scenes are invaded by this noise, making the world of the film seem inescapable.
The stark black and white suck any vibrancy from the film, managing to create some visually striking imagery without compromising the generally drab visual tone. Disgusting imagery, such as the model used from the baby (which was allegedly made from a cow foetus), is used to present the monstrosity and alienation of the world of the film. Similarly, many of the more surreal characters have physical abnormalities, such as the swollen cheeks of the woman in the radiator, which add the tone of confusion and human degradation through the film.
Eraserhead is an ambiguous film, and it is unlikely that anyone but the director fully understands it. It was Lynch’s first film and so comes before many of his main stylistic tools had been fully developed. As such it is a unique and disquieting debut, the likes of which have not fully been seen since.
Image: Aaron via Wikimedia Commons.