Directed by David Lynch
Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is the eye of the storm in Eraserhead, with everything swirling around him, haunting him, terrifying him or simply unsettling us. In the climactic moments of the film, Henry is as stunned as we are, despite mostly going along with the strange behavior and gore of the people around him throughout the film.
Henry never really seems to matter, even though the film is named after his haircut. But neither does the mother of his child, Mary (Charlotte Stewart) matter nor anyone else. Some of the creepiest, most viscerally affecting scenes are designed for our eyes and our eyes only. In fact, “Eraserhead” feels akin to calling someone a square. Henry himself is quite boring. His job, which he briefly describes to Mary’s father, is boring, he doesn’t have much to say so he mostly says nothing, and he never has anywhere to go.
The story of the film is that Mary, someone Henry once had a fling with, contacts him out of the blue. The only indication of his past relationship with her is the torn photo of hers he still keeps with him. Mary’s family is incredibly strange, but based on the world of Eraserhead, they’re likely in line with appropriate behavior. When he comes over for dinner, Mary’s mother enlists her mother in helping stir some kind of unspectacular mash, but she does the stirring for her mother as if she’s just a puppet. Then she takes the food back and continues working on it herself, as if unaware of her mother’s inability to do anything.
Mary’s mother eventually confronts Henry about whether or not he ever slept with Mary because, as we learn, Mary had a child, though that child isn’t human. Here are a couple screenshots from this section of the film that should accurately convey my confusion:
The point of the scene is that Mary’s mother wants Henry to take responsibility for the child he didn’t know he had and to marry her daughter. But the scene is unsettling in so many ways. First, people often react differently to the same thing, and that makes it confusing for the audience to know how to respond. In most situations in film, when a character smiles, you know to be happy for them, or when they cry, you know to be sad for them.
But in Eraserhead, we’re shown people smiling and crying in the same shot, looking towards us. At first it’s a mixed message, but then it seems more and more likely that they’re reacting to us, and not to the scene. it’s like you’re watching a play put on by severely troubled people who constantly break the fourth wall without realizing it. They are obsessed with the audience as much as we are nervous about them.
And in this scene, Henry represents us because his extremely boring nature is meant to make him seem hyper-normal relative to the characters around him. He’s just as creeped out as we are, and it has nothing to do with the information ultimately put forward in the scene. Henry is made nervous by Mary’s father’s eerie smile, which again has nothing to do with Mary’s child, and Henry is pushed into a corner when Mary’s mother tries to make a pass at him. Once again, this has nothing to do with the plot.
Right after this, we see Mary by herself, in a small apartment, taking care of an alien which is her child. She doesn’t react with surprise because she’s already aware of this creature. It’s our first time seeing this, so we’re a bit surprised, and when Henry enters the scene we expect him to feel like we do, except… Henry smiles when he sees Mary and their child together. He has already bought in while we’re just trying to imagine how we can ever eat spaghetti again without throwing up.
The rest of this film, until the explosive finale, depicts two people reacting to this infant creature like they would to any child. Mary walks out on Henry, not because their child is an alien, but because she just needs a good night’s sleep. The creature keeps wailing, and now it’s up to Henry to be a single father. The conflict in this film is remarkably real world and almost boring, like Henry, compared to the details of this world.
Eventually Henry decides to cut up the make shift diaper wrapped around the creature, but in doing so he kills his child because the cloth was apparently the creature’s skin. While it wails in agony, Henry stabs it, and the creature explodes, like the turkey dinner Mary’s parents laid out for Henry.
There is a subplot with a character apparently stuck in Henry’s radiator. She is a shy dancer, who performs with a mix of glee and shame. Her cheeks are molded to look like a cartoon character’s, but the clay has a rough texture, designed so you have to be aware of how fake her appearance is. In one scene, as she dances, she is showered with worm-like fetus versions of the creature fathered by Henry, and eventually she starts to step on them, making them burst with… if I… well… if I describe it I’m going to lose my appetite again. Just know that it’s like an avalanche but instead of snow it’s spoiled milk.
A third subplot is Henry’s infatuation with a girl next door who is surprisingly attractive and normal-looking for this world. Everything involving this plot, and I guess absolutely everything in this film, is dream-like. We’re not given clear, conclusive resolutions to each story. Instead they seem to pick away at Henry, frightening and humiliating and unsettling him, like it does us.
Whatever David Lynch set out to do with Eraserhead, I think he did it.
The film seems to exist on two levels, like a lot of films. In the case of most other films, though, the two levels both involve narrative, the exterior character and the interior character. In Eraserhead, though, the first level is the plot, and the second level is completely removed from the plot. It’s a visceral feeling, created through heightened sound effects (like a Jacques Tati film), visually-arresting gore, like a failed science experiment, and characters who core instincts seem in opposition to everything we know and expect in everyday life.
It’s like David Lynch has to rewire our brains in order to know how to watch one of his films. For the first ten minutes of Eraserhead, there is no dialogue. Everything takes its time (like the elevator which waits about ten seconds before the doors close to take Henry up to his apartment), and we’re left waiting but not sure what for.
When Henry visits Mary and her family, there is an unknown noise playing under the scene, one which might not even exist within the scene until we’re shown a bunch of puppies breastfeeding. Their squirming and squealing is the sound we’ve been hearing. Lynch does this a lot, setting up strange noises and images that we’re not able to understand until he decides to give us the necessary information.
The film begins with a shot of Henry in front of a planet-like ball, and then we see a guy covered in warts by a broken window, and how the hell are we supposed to understand what any of this is? We’re not supposed to understand, and I suppose that just emphasizes that logic isn’t what matters in a film like this. It’s all about feeling and sensation. Eventually we’re given enough pieces to assemble what some of this imagery means (the alien child develops warts in a single, frightening cut, so the man must be something like Henry’s child), but for most of the film we’re only given abstract images and sounds, that work on us like a dream might.
Logic helps us understand the world, right? We’re trained to understand certain images and to use that information to better take on the world. Like red is a sign of warning, for example. Or a scream warns us of danger just as laughing tells us everything is okay because, I mean someone’s laughing, so it’s gotta be okay. But with David Lynch, none of this stuff lines up. His film is completely disarming in that our senses are thrown out of whack. We don’t know what anything means, so the more visceral components of the film cut deep into our being, unobstructed by our own senses.
I hope that makes some sense. It’s a working theory, like all my theories. An example of this theory is that, with all the strange noises and imagery, we start playing detective and are forced to pay extra attention to all the sounds and images throughout the film. We’re trying to assemble the most basic details of a scene that we almost don’t have any time to wonder what it means or even what’s going on. We’re constantly playing catch up.
When Henry tries to care for his crying child, there is a sudden cut (enhanced by s familiar horror sound impact) to the child covered in warts. I jumped a little while I was watching, because nothing in this film suggested there would be a jump cut like this. And then Henry reacts like you would if you found out your child was sick, and that’s all there is to it.
So what’s the intention of all this? It seemed clear to me that David Lynch had some real concerns about being a father. It’s a scary thing, raising a kid, and this scenario, with an alien child, gives you no clues for how to move forward. I imagine that’s what being a first time parent is like. There is nothing to pull from, no memories or experiences, to tell you how to deal with this small little human in front of you. If we watch a movie about someone struggling with a child, we probably have an idea of what they should do because we’ve seen movie babies before and this is a baby movie, so just do that thing they did in that one movie.
But we’ve never seen this. We’re as clueless as Henry is when it comes to dealing with this alien child, so we’re constantly unsettled and looking for firm footing.
Oh, I should mention that there’s also this dream sequence in which Henry’s head falls off, revealing that he’s just the same creature on the inside that his child is. In this long dream sequence, a kid nonchalantly picks up Henry’s head and turns it in to someone who harvests pencils from Henry’s head. There is obviously a connection between this and the name Eraserhead, but I was too busy watching my skin crawl to figure out what it is.
All there is for me to say about this, I guess, is that it definitely worked. If you want a good body horror film, then just put this on repeat. I somehow think a second viewing will be even creepier than the first because I get the impression that the unsettling nature of viewing number one will make you see the entire Eraserhead world as that unsettling, even though the first ten or so minutes are relatively tame. This film prepares you to watch more David Lynch films and nothing else. It deconstructs your mind and your expectations so that you feel like an alien child yourself.