In October, my hunger for horror movies elevates itself, like a vampire that smells blood or a werewolf under a full moon. Yet in Eraserhead, you will find no horrors so comfortable as curses or monsters or spirits. In the mind of David Lynch, such things are far too ordinary to be freaky. In this film, you’ll find a kind of horror that doesn’t have the decency to simply be scary; it’s the kind of horror that grips you with a slimy hand and refuses to let you go on with your day. In this mind-bending, low-budget horror, we follow Eraserhead (played by frequent Lynch collaborator Jack Nance), a factory worker who struggles to survive in an industrial nightmare-world while being driven mad by the screams of his mutant child. So cliché, right?
This isn’t just an unusual film. It’s a rare specimen that, as his feature film debut, created David Lynch’s auteur status. Borne out of a twisted visual mind, the script was only 22 pages long, but with an 89-minute runtime. Every minute not used on dialogue was filled with surreal visions of what I would call an urban hell. Inspired by his time spent living in a troubled neighborhood in Philadelphia, Lynch described the atmosphere of those five years as filled with “violence, hate, and filth.” The bleak setting for the film creates an impossibly dark place for the film to live in, but the setting is just the first piece of the puzzle. As the screams of his mutant child keep the title character and his wife awake, it begins inducing the type of insomnia that makes real life and night terrors all look the same. The world around him seems to engulf him in screams as the sound design of the machinery that populates his uncomfortably industrialized world suggests torture and pain while never truly acting it out. Due to the low budget, the sound mixing was also done by Lynch, but this mix using 1970s equipment would put some of the highest-paid audio engineers today to shame.
Created over 5 years in a piecemeal fashion, production had to rebuild sets multiple times to make way for other productions. After production went on longer than expected, Lynch was forced to sleep in the cramped bedroom set for over a year. It seems it was well worth it – after initially running as a “midnight movie,” Stanley Kubrick himself praised Eraserhead as a favorite film and had the cast watch it (among other films) in preparation before shooting his own future legendary horror film, The Shining. The film’s current cult status doesn’t quite cover how influential it really was during its day, as Mel Brooks offered Lynch the director’s chair for The Elephant Man, which Lynch made directly after. Not influential enough for you? He also won the job of directing Dune off of Eraserhead, an adaptation of one of the most prolific science fiction books ever. He was even offered the job of directing Star Wars Episode VI – Return of The Jedi by George Lucas. That’s a lot of attention for a little cult film to garner.
You would think the strange and off-putting nature of this film would have been rejected by the industry. I certainly found myself physically lunging away from the screen, not because of gore or because of fright, but because of the visceral repulsion the imagery evoked in me. It was like having a nightmare in a straightjacket – it was exactly how I wanted to start off my October. Creeped out and more levels of disturbing than any moment of gore has managed to inflict on me, Eraserhead finds its place in horror history by being the opposite of straight-to-the-point. Lead actor Jack Nance, while being interviewed for a Twin Peaks fan magazine, is quoted to have said, “You guys get way too deep over this business. I don’t take it all that seriously. It’s only a movie.” Reportedly not knowing or even caring what the film was about, the film’s true meaning – which even Lynch declines to comment on in order to allow viewers to decide what it means for themselves – seems to live in a middle-ground between abstract and endlessly telling.
With credits like “Lady in the radiator” and “Man in the planet,” you can imagine that absurdity, in its darkest form, is the backbone of Eraserhead. One man may judge it to be a diagnosis of the sickness in modernity. Another man may believe it to be an allegory of the mutant child as a reflection of Lynch’s real-life daughter being born with a severe club foot defect, requiring extensive surgery and trouble as a newborn, just before the creation of the film. While mystery may shroud the piece, the tone is all you really need to enjoy. This is truly the good, old-fashioned horror of the late ‘70s. Slow, methodical, and twisted beyond recognition, Eraserhead is a cult classic horror that will satisfy only those desperately thirsty for strangeness.
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