From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
What to make of Eraserhead? The film is about a young man named Henry who fathers a severely deformed child. The premise seems straightforward enough but the execution is decidedly not thanks to its emphasis on disturbing visuals and creepy atmosphere over traditional storytelling methods. This approach has made it a favorite on the midnight movie circuit, with it often being cited as one of the best examples of experimental horror to this day. It also marks an audaciously avant-garde debut for David Lynch, who somewhat frustratingly refuses to elaborate on the film’s meaning beyond it being a "dream of dark and troubling things". But as elusive as any one true meaning of Eraserhead may be, it is undoubtedly a necessary movie for lovers of horror and cinema in general to experience for themselves, with them free to wrestle or not with its different possible interpretations afterwards.
As tricky as it may be to pinpoint the point - if any - of Eraserhead, the place it was coming from becomes a lot clearer when one considers Lynch’s own background. Living at one point with his family in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood where Lynch would wake up at 5 PM and work all night, it’s easy to see where the director got the inspiration for the grim urban landscape that Henry and the other characters inhabit. Henry even resembles Lynch in some ways, what with his wild, towering hair and politely awkward manner of speech. Jack Nance is perfectly passive as the protagonist of what can only be described as a Kafkaesque nightmare, but it is Allen Joseph who injects a quick but vital shot of humanity into the movie as Mr. X, the father of Henry’s girlfriend. Rambling in excitable, plainspoken language about how he helped turn their home into the glum wasteland it now is, it’s easy to view Joseph’s performance as a test run for the charmingly crusty sort of characters played by Harry Dean Stanton, a reliable presence in latter Lynchian fare like Wild at Heart and The Straight Story.
Undergirding the disquieting imagery is a selection of sounds that adds to the unsettling feeling permeating the onscreen proceedings. Befitting the industrial environment, the hum of far-off machinery can often be heard in the background, giving a trancelike feel to an already dreamlike film. This constant presence isn’t exactly reassuring however: on the contrary, the low, mechanical tone of the noise fills viewers with a sense of foreboding, as if something terrible could happen at any moment. Most of the movie’s score (to the extent that you can call it that) consists solely of this and other ambient sounds, with the only traditional music compositions being several Fats Waller organ pieces and “In Heaven”, an original song written by Peter Ivers. It’s worth noting that these conventional pieces are heard most prominently in the Lady in the Radiator’s scenes, playing up their nature as escapist fantasies from the dull, literal humdrum of Henry’s waking life.
The movie is a lot to think on as a self-contained entry in Lynch’s filmography, but it’s also interesting to pick up on the first inklings of recurring ideas and themes in the rest of his work. While the folksy, oddly-rhythmed Midwestern dialect that he so lovingly mined for humor in latter productions makes an early appearance here, it is the very next film that Lynch made, The Elephant Man, that bears the most similarities to Eraserhead. Indeed, these two titles share a general aesthetic with their black and white cinematography and eerie sound design, but it’s the fact that both revolve around the subject of deformity that unites them thematically. It’s true that Henry’s endlessly-crying, seemingly malevolent baby is treated far less sympathetically than Elephant Man’s John Merrick, but both characters and the dramatically different ways they’re portrayed seem to draw from Lynch’s own experience raising a daughter born with clubbed feet, to say nothing of reflecting the struggle between his better nature and inner demons that one can only presume followed.
So again, what to make of Eraserhead? Until Lynch himself says otherwise (and it’s almost certain that he will not), there is no “correct” interpretation but that doesn’t mean viewers can’t make reasonable guesses based on what’s shown in the film and what we know about its creator’s background. Though Lynch would go on to make projects that were more narratively and emotionally compelling like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive, none would be as sublimely strange or profoundly personal as this first one. It’s one thing to try and describe a nightmare to someone: after all, dreams tend to lose their power and mystique once you put them into words. Yet by trying to show his deepest anxieties and fears rather than describe them, Lynch is able to capture his worst nightmare on film and make it our own.
Review by Reggie Peralta