It’s undeniably one of the most bizarre films ever made, and it has always been one of my favorites. David Lynch’s debut, Eraserhead, released in 1977 but made intermittently for five years prior, defies categorization. It’s haunting and troubling enough to be a horror film. It has enough scenes of the peculiar and irrational to fall into the fantasy genre. There are the prevailing themes of marital strife and the burdens of parenthood, elements of any number of dramatic features. And there are plenty of moments yielding laughter, albeit a rather awkward and distressed kind of laughter, to make it a comedy of sorts. (As much as anything though, any laughing during this film may also serve as a defense mechanism, where the audience may try to brush off the disturbing and strange as comical so as to be less unsettling.)
So, what’s the film about. Henry has a girlfriend named Mary. She becomes pregnant - though, as she notes, the doctors aren’t even sure it is a baby. Forced to marry by her parents, the two unhappily assume the role of man and wife and mom and dad, taking care of the ... well, let’s just say “different” child. Mary can’t take the insistent crying of the baby and goes back home. Henry, meanwhile, does his best to tend to the child, who becomes visibly — and gruesomely — sick. What happens next is a barrage of the incongrous and engrossing. There are many elements of the film that give it its admittedly minimal narrative, but let’s be real, nobody watches this film for its plot.
Eraserhead is simply a just plain weird movie. It has a mood and tone unlike anything else. It looks and sounds truly amazing. It gets under your skin. You become uncomfortable at times, falling somewhere between a dream state and a place of higher consciousness. Sounds hyperbolic for a movie? Watch it and see.
David Lynch has made a career out of directing odd, unique and, more often than not, excellent movies. Eraserhead is certainly on the extreme end of odd, but there’s much more to this great filmmaker. Take a few steps back from the surrealism of Eraserhead (but not many) and you get to Blue Velvet, from 1986, one of the greatest American films ever made, a provocative examination of small town secrets. Then there’s Wild at Heart and Lost Highway (1990, 1997), two of his most inventive films, both fiercely eccentric in sound and image. His last two features, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire (2001, 2006), are also both brilliant in a typically unusual way, the former earning Lynch his third Oscar nomination for Best Director (Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man, 1980, were the previous two). These movies are all comprised to varying degrees of bizarre characters and absurd situations, though in them there’s perhaps more to latch on to than in Eraserhead. On the other hand, Lynch did also made The Elephant Man (bizarre subject yes, but not bizarre in form like other Lynch pictures) and The Straight Story, in 1999 (again, an unusual — but true — plot, but not style). And then there’s the pop culture phenomenon that was Twin Peaks, where he brought his unique thematic and stylistic sensibilities to America’s living rooms.
Still, Eraserhead is the high water mark in the cannon of cult classic cinema. In an era of the midnight movie when something abnormal and flamboyant was expected (see also Rocky Horror and Pink Flamingos), Lynch’s film managed to be exceptional and noteworthy even amongst this most savvy movie-going crowd. It’s a film that has to be seen to be believed.