‘Eraserhead’ Review: David Lynch’s Fatherhood

Posted in Screening Room by - October 03, 2014

If you have ever stared at painting of random lines and sharp aggressive shapes and felt utterly confused but at the same time oddly drawn to the painting, that is how I felt while watching Eraserhead. It is a strange film that is at some times extremely upsetting and grotesque and at others beautiful. I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a true horror film but it does have some body horror elements. I enjoyed the plot: a tale about the fears of fatherhood but agree that the film is very polarizing.

Eraserhead follows the story of Henry Spencer, a printer who is get romantically involved with a woman named Mary X . This romantic relationship results in more than either of them bargained for: a unplanned pregnancy. However, the birth is not a normal baby and this results in the main conflict of the film. Henry must take care the “baby”, while battling his own fears about being a father. The “baby” is one of the more disturbing aspects of the film. The physical effects used to bring the baby to life, in tandem with the black and white color, create a unsettling realistic character that is reminiscent of an snake more than a humanoid child. The plot however is mostly unintelligible at times due to the film’s surrealist nature. Things seem to just happen with no explanation or warning which caused me to question what I was watching. I did enjoy the theme centering around the fear of fatherhood and of having a baby that is not normal. These mirror Lynch’s own experiences with his daughter who was born with clubbed feet from birth.

The real centerpiece of the film is the performance by Jack Nance as Henry. His dour demeanor throughout the film really helps to show the internal struggle that he faces. He has very few lines in the film but does most of his acting through emoting. Nance’s eyes are extremely expressive and you can feel the sadness within them as he moves through each scene.The ability for him to have little dialogue yet render a performance that is the standout of the film is impressive since it was his first major role. Many people, while not having seen the film, would be able to recognize the signature haircut that Henry sports throughout the film, another odd yet endearing quality about his character.

Along with Henry, there are some other memorable performances in the film specifically Mary X’s father and the Lady in the Radiator. Mary X’s father in the dinner scene stares at Henry with a wide, toothy grin all the while not breaking eye contact with him. He seems to stare straight through Henry; its unsettling creepy in a non-menacing way. The Lady in the Radiator sings In Heaven, a track made specifically for the film, and appears in three scenes. Her character is given no back story or context in the greater plot but she appears three times in the film. These scenes stand out as some of the strangest in the film, including the musical performance and the final scene. I really did enjoy the performances in the film, especially Nance’s as he is able to carry the entire film on his back.

Eraserhead is filmed in black and white and is set in an industrial wasteland of a city that reflects Lynch’s time growing up in Philadelphia. Lynch abhorred the industrial dilapidation that afflicted the city he grew up in and that comes through in the run down nature of the setting. There are pipes, busted doors, garbage littering the streets, and broken windows that pepper each of the narrow alleys that Henry walks down. It really reinforces that the city in which Henry lives is an industrial wasteland with no vegetation or greenery. The only greenery in the film is the tree branch that Harry has on his nightstand and the dead vegetation that is strewn across the floor of his squalid apartment. 

Along with the industrial setting of the film, there are also scenes that are not set in any discernible location. I had to go back after watching the film and read about where some of the actions take place in the film, namely the Lady in the Radiator singing. The film draws heavily on surrealism and in some respects feels like a dream. Many of the things that happen in the film seem to happen in Harry’s mind, which lends that dreamlike quality to them. There are times in the film where it is hard to tell what is reality and what is just in Henry’s mind. Overall however, I enjoyed the setting of the film; it lent a visceral quality to the film that helps to create the unsettling nature of the film.

The sound in the film is also a standout. Unlike many horror films, it doesn’t employ sound to create jump scares; Eraserhead uses the sound to fully realize the setting. The city seems to ache, pop, and fizzle with every scene. It really becomes a living, breathing city through the careful addition of sound. As well, the soundtrack of the film helps to create the unsettling, disturbing nature of the film through the use of distortion. The distorted nature of the soundtrack helps create a mood that allows for the film to go in and out of dream sequences with ease. I enjoyed the soundtrack and the audio while not finding it overwhelming or distracting from the overall film.

While I enjoyed the film, I did have some issues with it. I was not a huge fan of the ending of the film; it seems to just come out of nowhere and end. While I do understand that this is an art-house film and many of these kinds of films lack a linear narrative, I was still not a fan of it. The other performances aside from the ones I mentioned earlier don’t stand out either. Many of them seem to be people Lynch knew and asked if they could star in his film having no previous acting experience. They didn’t significantly hinder the film but they were noticeable.

Eraserhead is not for casual film-goers. It will challenge your notions of what cinema is and can be. There are scenes in the film that are upsetting and disturbing but also beautiful as well. Jack Nance’s performance makes the film worth watching as well as the broken beauty of the industrial city he inhabits. I do understand now why it is such a polarizing film for many viewers but Lynch’s entire catalog is polarizing as well. I enjoyed the film and if you want to watch something that isn’t your everyday horror film, this would be a great starting place.

Final Say: Watch It

Who Said What?

Henry Spencer: “Oh, I don’t know much of anything.”

This post was written by
Chris Stachiw is the Editor-in-Chief and co-host of the Kulturecast. He's a native Californian with a penchant for sarcasm and a taste for the cinematic bizarre. You'll often find him wandering the wasteland of Nebraska searching for the meaning of life and possibly another rare Pokemon.
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