Released a little over two decades ago, Eraserhead is David Lynch’s feature film debut and the beginning of a filmography both wonderful and strange. Set in a grimy, industrial town, it tells the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) a young man who finds himself in a tumultuous relationship after his girlfriend has given birth to their child. After a long night of listening to their child cry, Spencer’s girlfriend leaves him to watch over the sick, mutant baby. At its core, it’s a film about fatherhood and the struggles and fear that come with it, but Lynch’s approach results in a nightmare fueling film unconcerned with the conventions of traditional storytelling. Eraserhead is a prime example of what makes Lynch’s films great — it’s shocking and innovative in its storytelling, visuals, and even sound.
Despite constant questions regarding the movie’s meaning, Lynch has only ever responded by describing it as “a dream of dark and troubling things.” Eraserhead feels like a dark and troubling dream from its first scene, where Lynch has superimposed the film’s protagonist over a strange planet floating in darkness. With this introduction, it’s clear that Lynch is aware of the way setting can be used to unsettle the audience. Several shots of the film’s industrial landscape establish a world that feels both busy and shockingly empty. Cinematographers Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes focus on establishing shots reminiscent of German Expressionist films, surrounding Spencer with buildings much larger than him and vast empty streets. And when we are brought into Spencer’s room, it maintains some of the outside industrialist imagery but also surrounds him with piles of dirt and other organic matter that are unnervingly out of place.
However, setting is not the only disquieting thing about Eraserhead. Industrial clanks and booms, radiators hissing, the wailing of Spencer’s mutant baby all heighten the grotesque imagery on screen. Even during mundane moments, Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet’s otherworldly humming sound lingers uneasily. All of this is especially impressive considering that Lynch and Splet did not have the most sophisticated equipment. On a budget of only 10,000 dollars, they used ordinary objects like plastic bottles and bathtubs, taking magnetic tape from garbage bins at Warner Brother Studios to record the audio and then mixing it in Lynch’s garage. This work on sound also served to influence Lynch’s later projects like Mulholland Drive and Fire Walk With Me.
Apart from Lynch’s masterful directorial work and sound design, the actors deserve praise as well. Jack Nance maintains an air of anxiousness, embodying the character perfectly. In every situation he seems to be out of his depths, from meeting his girlfriend’s family to caring for his newborn. Mr. and Mrs. X (Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates) are stand-outs as Spencer’s in-laws. They’re charming in their strangeness, and at one point Joseph’s Mr. X talks proudly about the inability to feel his arm and it’s somehow both endearing and totally bizarre. But perhaps there is no bigger star in Eraserhead than the Eraserhead baby, Spencer’s repulsive, premature child. The baby is disturbing, resembling a slimy sheep fetus or maybe something not of this world at all. Lynch has notoriously refused to describe how it was made or articulated, only offering that “it was born nearby” or “maybe it was found.”
Ultimately, Eraserhead has all the elements that make David Lynch’s filmography so fascinating. It also serves as a blueprint for Lynch’s later work, introducing iconic Lynchian motifs like his use of chevron floors and scenes featuring stage performances. Eraserhead is a disturbing introduction to Lynch’s canon, but it is also a master work in experimental filmmaking that has cemented itself as a timeless classic.
Valerie Lopez is a film intern who loves hearing herself talk about movies almost as much as watching them.