Eraserhead is a 1976 fantasy horror film directed and written by David Lynch and starring Jack Nance as Henry Spencer and Charlotte Stewart as Mary X. Eraserhead is set in a bleak abandoned industrial landscape and follows a nervous Henry who is on vacation in his one room apartment that overlooks an outer brick wall. One day on entering his apartment he receives a message from the beautiful girl across the hall (Judith Roberts) that his girlfriend has invited him to her parent’s house for dinner. In the very sparsely furnished and dingy home of his ex-girlfriend Henry meets her parents; Anton Bitel from Film4 gives his interpretation of the dinner, “Mary X (Stewart), his ex, has invited him to dinner at her parents' house. There, a grotesque meal of painfully awkward conversation, perverse psychosexual tension and animated 'manmade' chicken is interrupted by news from Mrs X (Bates) that Henry is father to Mary's premature baby” (Bitel, 2008). Bitel sums up perfectly the events of that night, a dinner set in a claustrophobic environment stifled by the noise of suckling puppies on their nursing mother, (which also disappears with the dogs in latter scenes), and Mrs. X’s (Jeanne Bates) piercing gaze when Henry is introduced, then followed by her awkward sexual advances as she questions him about his intimacy with her daughter. Mr. X’s (Allen Joseph) behaviour is just as bemusing as he greets Henry with questions of small manmade chickens and his strangely deformed legs caused by his knee problems. After Mr X is ushered into the kitchen by his wife - Mr X tends to his manmade chicken and Mrs X prepares a dish with her Grandmother. The Grandmother seems to have lost all use of her arms so Mrs X takes the dish and places it into the lap of the Grandmother, controlling her arms from behind to mix the dish. When this is done she places a cigarette into the Grandmother’s mouth and lights it, as if to show some sort of gratification for a job well done. The weirdness does not stop there, while at the table Henry is asked to carve the bird which starts to move as if it still has life, spewing what looks like blood all over the plate.
The scene of Henry’s visit to his ex-girlfriend’s home although extremely strange is the only real coherent part of the film as it explains why Mary called him, and the reason for introducing him to her family so he could find out about his child, and for Henry to do the right thing and marry Mary and build a family. But with this short plot out the way the story disintegrates into a collage of even weirder happenings. A comment by Chuck O’Leary highlights the film from this point onwards, “Nothing more than a pretentious, incoherent and boring exercise in self-indulgent weirdness” (O’Leary, 2006). O’Leary pin-points a new genre that should be attached to this film, boring. From there on the film goes nowhere as it continues with Mary X living with Henry in his one room apartment with their new born mutant baby. Questions are asked as to why their child looks this way. Was one of the parents an alien or some sort of monster beneath human flesh; but Lynch does not answer these questions. The only relevance to the child’s worm like exterior takes us back to the opening scene of the film where we see Henry’s head and an asteroid bobbing around in space, then a burnt man at the controls of a machine pulling a lever which flushes a worm from Henry’s mouth into a puddle. With no explanation of this opening scene and no follow-up to the burnt man’s actions the scene is soon forgotten and written-off as another eccentric visual by the director.
Henry’s relationship with Mary becomes strained, and the baby’s relentless crying does not help, Mary soon gets tired and leaves the baby with Henry to go back to her parents. This film that was dying is now dead, with only a few short dislocated scenes played out. The back drop of Henry’s dull and dreary apartment begins to eat away the retina of the eye, becoming tiresome with no real purpose but to instill a sense of hopelessness. Henry despairs as his child falls sick and he cannot leave the apartment, staying up throughout the night, although with no window to indicate whether this was occurring during the day or night, the audience could only presume it was night time as he had to get out of bed to tend to his child. The only saving grace for Henry is a visit from the beautiful girl across the hall who throws herself at him in one night of passion. The boredom of Henry’s dismal apartment is relieved during a scene where Henry stares at his radiator and daydreams of a disfigured dancing girl on a stage with worms falling from above and her squashing them under her feet. With no explanation of whom this girl is and what the scene relates to, it is lost to obscurity.
Eraserhead with its slow start, dislocated plot and disturbing scenes is too much of a miss-match to arrive at a definite conclusion as to the true meaning of the film. The audience could only surmise that Eraserhead is some sort of biography of David Lynch’s earlier life. Could it be that he lived in an abandoned industrial estate infested by worms and was left holding a baby when his girlfriend ran off, and this has left scars on his psyche to this day. But whatever the reason Variety’s film review sums up the overall experience of Eraserhead, “the pic has good tech values (particularly the inventive sound mixing), but little substance or subtlety. The mind boggles to learn that Lynch labored on this pic for five years” (Variety, 2007).
Illustrations1. Eraserhead poster, (2009) David Lynch, Eraserhead, Posted 25/4/2009, Time 15:00, 20/12/2010
2. Henry, Mr X at dinner (2007) Movie Time Capsule, Eraserhead, Posted 7/7/2007, Time 15:10 20/12/2010 http://movietimecapsule.blogspot.com/2007/07/eraserhead.html
3. Henry and his mutant baby (2010) Synopsis Sophie, Eraserhead, Posted 3/10/2010, Time 15:15 20/12/2010 http://averagefilms.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/eraserhead/
Bitel, Anton, (2008) Film4, Reviews & More, Eraserhead, Posted 12/9/2008, Time 12:02, 20/12/2010 http://www.film4.com/reviews/1977/eraserhead
O’Leary, Chuck, (2006) FulvueDrive-in.com, Comment, Rottentomatoes, Eraserhead, Posted 2/9/2006, Time 12:15, 20/12/2010 http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/eraserhead/
Variety Staff, (2007) Variety, Film Reviews, Eraserhead, Posted 21/12/1976 11pm, Time 12:15, 20/12/2010 http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117790719/