Eraserhead: fascinating and hilarious dark horror film about social and religious pressures on struggling families

David Lynch, “Eraserhead” (1977)

Five years in the making from 1971 to 1976, “Eraserhead” was David Lynch’s full-length directing debut feature. Based on his experiences in Philadelphia in the late 1960’s, its themes revolve around fears and anxieties of being a parent and the death of innocence that parenthood implies; the film also focusses on an individual’s alienation in industrial society and the decay and stagnation that can exist in families in such a context. There is reference to mental illness which often can be a result or a symptom of alienation.  With such themes it’s no wonder that “Eraserhead” is such a dark film and yet there’s a lot of absurdist humour which may derive from surrealist art influences.

The plot is straightforward: Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a printer by trade and on “vacation”, is hustled into a shotgun marriage by girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents when she gives birth to a premature mutant baby. The new family take up residence in Henry’s apartment but the baby’s constant whining drives Mary home to her parents (some viewers may follow suit) and Henry is left to care for the infant. Alone in his cramped surroundings which include a double bed, an old radiator, piles of dirt and dead worm-infested plants, Henry drifts into fantasies about a girl with hamster cheeks (Laurel Near) living in his radiator and the beautiful girl (Judith Anna Roberts) who lives next door. His fantasies send him into a dark dream about his head being chopped off and ending up as raw material for a pencil-making factory. After waking up, Henry still finds himself stuck in his room with the baby.

All very mundane but that’s beside the point – what makes the mundane so mesmerising to watch is the dream-like quality of the narrative and the nature of its context. Henry lives in a town that’s seen better and more prosperous days; factories still exist and machines within still grind on but they are on the slow road to decay and deterioration. They produce less and less and their output probably isn’t needed – they work just for the sake of working. In like manner, Mary’s family still holds to the nuclear-family ideal: her mother demands to know if Henry and Mary have slept together. Other members of the family either pine for the “good ol’ days” or have lost track of time. Henry still dresses for work and makes attempts to leave his apartment sometimes but the baby’s needs subvert any notions of returning to work and Henry gets no calls from his employer about being late or taking time off so viewers can assume his “vacation” is permanent. Henry’s fear of not being wanted may be mirrored in his dream of the pencil factory: all his knowledge, skill and memories, everything that makes him what he is and no-one else, are swept away in the pencil shavings that the factory owner swipes off his table and which billow away into nothingness.

There is a wider story too of the struggle between forces of good and darkness, represented by the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) working his levers and the Radiator Girl who beguiles Henry and tempts him to join her. The Man in the Planet may well be responsible for the strange events that befall Henry: perhaps he is testing Henry in some way. Is there a message about religion as well? Certainly Henry and Mary try to do the “right thing” by getting married and trying to bring up a sick baby. They fail but get no support from Mary’s relatives or society generally. The  baby’s severe deformities – it has no skin or skeleton to cover and protect its internal organs under the bandages – remind Henry of its sinful conception and his responsibilities as a father. Social pressures and rigid expectations, the lack of help and Henry’s own social and physical isolation combine to test his sanity and behaviour towards the baby.

The first half of the film rolls by at leisure to introduce viewers into Henry’s insular world and its inhabitants, and how they think and behave. After Mary abandons Henry and the baby and Henry’s dream sequence begins, the action does bog down: the scene where Henry and the beautiful girl kiss and have sex is drawn-out and isn’t necessary to the plot. (Things that happen in dreams rarely are necessary to the plot but the rest of Henry’s fantasies are important as illustrations of the movie’s themes.) For a first-time feature film the technical effects are good – the animated sperm worms which represent temptation to sin and Henry’s guilt are fascinating to watch – and well-mastered, particularly in the scene where Henry Junior froths up and his head goes swollen, really swollen, and the electricity in the apartment starts freaking out. The scene alternates among shots of a giant head popping up in odd places around Henry’s apartment and shots of electrical sparking and burns. At this point in the film good and evil are fighting each other – the Man in the Planet suffers burns while furiously working his levers – and the baby, itself the scene of the battle, swallows up the screen and everything is killed off. A scorched, lifeless planetoid floats in space and Henry finds himself in another realm altogether.

The film’s expressionist sets, dreary at times but also quaint, are part of its charm along with the music-hall appearance of the radiator’s internal workings. The Man in the Planet and his working environment suggest the kind of work railway station workers did before computers made moving rail tracks on sleepers through and around stations easier. This in itself hints that traditional religious beliefs which force Henry and others like him into hasty marriages to preserve social respectability are also stagnant and in decay. The soundtrack, a mixture of industrial-factory ambience and old-fashioned pipe-organ melodies, is eccentric but fits the style of the movie.

A personal and self-indulgent project “Eraserhead” may be but it’s fascinating and often hilarious to watch despite its supposed darkness. At the same time, traditional religion, social expectations, a changed and degraded economic environment and how these affect families may strike a serious chord with viewers who themselves may be experiencing similar pressures.

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