Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch
Staring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart and Allen Joseph
Eraserhead (1976) is an extremely interesting movie that tends to divide critics and normal viewers alike. Some believe this movie is a dark surrealist masterpiece, critic Derik Melcome writes that the movie is “a minor masterpiece, mixing Gothic horror, surrealism and darkly expressionist mise-en-scène” [Derek Malcolm, 2008, This is London]. Overs believe it to be well shot nonsense like critic Chuck O’Leary who writes that it is “Nothing more than a pretentious, incoherent and boring exercise in self-indulgent weirdness” [Chuck O’Leary, 2006, Rottentomatoes.com]. The later of these two stances could be considered unfear and perhaps a tad ignorant, although it is understandable why a lot of people dislike this movie. It is not a mainstream film in any sense, in fact when it was released it was a total failure but has since gained a cult following. This is most likely because it is never going to please anyone looking for a satisfying narrative or even entertainment. The movie is not intended to be entertaining, which is what people traditionally want from a movie. The movie is extremely surreal, it is deeply psychological and resembles a horrible nightmare.
The plot of this movie is difficult to summarize but it does follow a vague narrative. The basic plot revolves around Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) who is trying to survive in the industrial nightmare he inhabits. His life becomes unbearable when he is forced to look after his newly born mutant child, who is constantly screaming. Officially Eraserhead is classified as a horror movie but its genre is difficult to define. It is also difficult to define what the movie is about in terms of its subtext. These things are open to interpretation and a huge amount of theories exist. Even David Lynch himself has said “No critic or viewer has ever given an interpretation that is my interpretation” [David Lynch, 2010]. Lynch has never publicly stated his own interpretation of Eraserhead because the movie is intended to be a subjective experience.
It could be said the main antagonist of this movie is the environment itself, It is extremely oppressive. The soundtrack also adds to this overwhelming sense of dread and oppression. The soundtrack consists of vague industrial sounds that never stop. It seems to get more overwhelming as Henry descends into madness. The black and white seems to create a heightened sense of texture, light and shadow. Lynch also uses this style in his later more mainstream movie The Elephant Man (1980) where it is equally effective. These elements make the movie an incredibly immersive experience. The world henry inhabits could be considered a part of henrys psyche, It is the world as henry sees it, a twisted exaggeration of the real world.
Eraserhead has been interpreted as having a very sexual Freudian subtext by many critics. Jose Cruz from Classic-Horror.com has said in there analysis of the movie, “The first prominent theme in Eraserhead is sex. The film is filled with suggestive imagery of intercourse and sexual activity” [Jose Cruz, 2010, Classic Horror]. An example of the sexual imagery in the film is the opening sequence when a grotesque creature that can be compared to a sperm is dragged from Henry's mouth and cast into a pit, this could symbolise the conception of Henrys child. These sperm like creatures can be seen throughout the movie, notably in a sequence with the lady in the radiator. Henry had been fixated on this figure for some time; there is a sequence in which the lady is trampling the sperm creatures, perhaps this is some kind of symbolic birth control. It is also noticeable that when Henry unwraps the baby creature it resembles a phallic symbol (Fig, 2). When he stabs and destroys the baby it extremely disturbingly implies some kind of castration.
With the horrible baby creature as the result of an implied sexual act, the twisted representations of sexual images and the liberating effect of implied birth control and even possibly castration. It could be said that the movie is about the fear of sex and fear of the results of sex. Although this is just one of an infinite amount of interpretations, which is why this movie is so fascinating, it leaves it up to the audience to decide.
Malcolm, D. (2008). This is London. http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/film/review-23554307
O’Leary, C. (2006). Rotten Tomatoes. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/eraserhead/
Cruz, J. (2010). Classic-Horror. http://classic-horror.com/reviews/eraserhead_1977
Fig, 1. Eraserhead. (1976). [Movie Still]. http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_DF_bkCdF5b0/StZ4GQDRNDI/AAAAAAAABK0/U1UmiNOWDJg/s1600-h/Eraserhead+_1977__0002.jpg
Fig, 2. Eraserhead. (1976). [Movie Still]. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/eraserhead/In this movie still (Fig, 1) Henry is walking though the industrial wasteland. The oppressiveness of the environment is implied by the huge buildings and the way Henry is made to look very small.