ERASERHEAD(director/writer/editor: David Lynch; cinematographers: Frederick Elmes/Herbert Cardwell; cast: Jack Nance (Henry Spencer), Charlotte Stewart (Mary X), Allen Joseph (Mr. X), Judith Anna Roberts (Beautiful Girl Across the Hall), Jeanne Bates (Mrs. X), Hal Landon Jr. (Pencil Machine Operator), Jack Fisk (Man in the Planet), Laurel Near (Lady In Radiator), V. Phipps-Wilson (Landlady), Allen Joseph (Mr. X), Jean Lange (Grandmother); Runtime: 89; AFI/Lynch; 1977)
“…I found this imaginative work to be one of the more interesting films to come out of the ’70s.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
David Lynch’s nightmare debut film is shot in wonderful B&W (in the expressionist mode of a German horror film). It took him five years to complete. It features a unique soundtrack that is mostly made up of shrill sounds that might destroy your inner peace (clangs, hissings, whistles, street noise, etc.). It also has a lovely little song tract, sung by the deformed Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), with the catchy lyrical song title of “Everything is fine in heaven.” That song is meant to offer hope to the despondent hero of this dream, who is probably thinking about suicide as an answer to his problems.
The film is a long dream sequence for Henry (Nance). He lives in an awful urban smoke infested industrial city and needs the dreams to escape from reality. The illogical story gives way to a surreal world of fantasy, covering feelings about loneliness, sexuality, nuclear families, love, urban decay, and an inhuman monster for a child. This weird tale is an original, personal, and provoking work, capturing the darker side of modern urban life for the Have-Nots and the dark side of the dreamworld for the dreamer. The story makes little sense in the real world of things, but has its own logic within the contexts of the film. At least certain experiences drawn from its little episodes can be related to one’s own experiences, as it makes a striking impact on one’s fragile modern psyche.
This is what a cult film is supposed to be like, and in that sense there is a certain ready-made audience for this difficult film. Those who like their films with a solid narrative, will not find what they are looking for here.
As the film opens Henry is first seen walking home along the dark confines of the railroad tracks and the factories, until he reaches his cheerless apartment building. He has a distinct nerdlike look, featuring a Bride of Frankenstein hairstyle and in his lapel there is a plastic-holder for his pencils and pens. In the hallway, his neighbor (Judith Anna Roberts) tells him that Mary (Charlotte Stewart) called on the pay phone and wants him to come over to her place for dinner and to meet her parents.
The forced dialogue between Henry, Mary, and her parents at their dinner engagement, appears to be distracting to Henry. The conversation is so slow in coming forth, that it is painful to listen to. Mary’s mother (Jeanne Bates) finds out that Henry is a printer in Lepell’s factory, and this is his vacation. He spends his vacation dreaming instead of traveling or doing recreational activities as most workers, which makes him appear to be even odder than how he looks. He also seems to be without any friends or hobbies. Mary’s father, Mr. X (Allen Joseph), is a plumber with a numb arm and is very talkative. By Henry’s stiffened expression you can tell he doesn’t really care for him or his perverse wife, who tried to sexually entice him. And there is the shot of Mary’s grandmother (Jean Lange) sitting on the couch, who seems like she could be dead.
Finally the point of the visit is disclosed as Henry is informed that Mary gave birth prematurely to his baby and that he will have to marry her, which he readily agrees to. The baby is a devouring monster who is always crying after they are married, which drives Mary away from the apartment to live with her mother.
Being a loner with no one to talk to about his problems, Henry is troubled by Mary’s rejection of him and he is also troubled about carrying out his responsibilities as a father. This inward tension results in a dream which shows Henry’s head being lopped off and made into a pencil-eraser, whereby the film gets its title from.
There is also the man in the planet (Jack Fisk) to be explained in Henry’s vision, who is some kind of higher force that Henry is controlled by. He is seen appearing in a rock, slightly above Henry’s facial features.
As for the twisted worm Henry plucks from between his teeth, that could mean a lot of different things. It requires some imagination to interpret the dream, since the story itself is a dream. I would hazard a guess and say that the worm has something to do with the deformed baby and the concept of Original Sin.
What it all means, is probably anyone’s guess. But this is a film not made strictly for entertainment: it is visual and shocking to the intellect, hoping to cause a reaction. It is one of the more imaginative efforts put forth in an American film, reminding me most of a Buñuel film. And, as illogical, tedious, and repulsive as the film may be to some, there is still something there that grabs our attention before we can turn away from it. It’s the simpatico feeling we have for Henry; he seems to be a rather civil chap willing to do the right thing, have a nice steady job, lead a quiet life, and yet he is subject to being both a victim of the environment and to society. Henry also has a wife who can’t offer him her love and worst of all, he is subject to his own worst fears. Somehow I get the feeling there are lots of people who can identify with Henry, even if they will not admit to being nerds.
I just loved the idea of the film, admittedly more than I loved watching the film (I saw it on video, where the images were sometimes too dark). Yet I found this imaginative work to be one of the more interesting films to come out of the ’70s.
REVIEWED ON 1/11/2000 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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