David Lynch doesn’t remember when the idea for Eraserhead came about or even the process of writing the script itself. There wasn’t much of a script, in fact, just a “22-page thing” as he puts it. Somewhere around 1970, however, after making the half-hour short The Grandmother using an AFI (American Film Institute) grant, Lynch was offered further support from the school to make Eraserhead, which they initially believed to be another short film, going by the length of the ‘script’. Lynch knew otherwise and began production on the feature film that was to put his name on the cinematic map for decades to come.
Lynch was granted access to ‘the stables’, as Lynch calls them, and a decent amount of equipment from the AFI to make the film. The stables were turned into something like a mini film studio as they had multiple rooms, so spaces for makeup, costumes and eating, as well as garages for their cars. Lynch even lived there for a long while to save money and travel. They were also allowed to use Greystone Mansion, another building owned by the AFI, for many scenes.
Assembling a small cast and crew largely made up of fellow students at the AFI, Lynch set to work. There was no fixed time limit on the shoot but it was presumed it would take about 2 years. After 2 years of pre-production though, Lynch still hadn’t started shooting. It eventually did begin after this period though and the shoot ran on for around 4 years.
This long production process was partly due to money, as they’d spent all of the AFI grant after a year of shooting. They had to work in a piecemeal fashion after that, pausing whenever the money ran dry. Lynch’s good friend Jack Fisk and Fisk’s wife Sissy Spacek were close supporters and put money into the film to keep it going. The team also got lucky at times and came across quite a lot of spare equipment to buy on the cheap from a studio that was closing down as well as finding some vintage bulbs in a large skip. Lynch and the lead actor Jack Nance would deliver newspapers in their spare time to make ends meet.
Also slowing things down was the filming process. They always shot at night, so people arrived around 4.30 pm for work. They would rehearse without lights first for a while and then the crew would spend a long time carefully lighting the scene before shooting at the end of the night. They would often only get one shot done a day, in this fashion, so it was a long, slow process. It amused me to hear that actress Charlotte Stewart was shooting Little House on the Prairie in the daytime and Eraserhead at night. I can’t think of a pair of more diametrically opposed roles.
However unusual and difficult the process was though, Lynch and his team speak fondly of the time. It became a way of life for them and they grew into a little family working together for so long. This lack of pressure from external interference to make something particular by a specific time also meant Lynch had total freedom to make the film exactly as he wanted. Nobody thought it would be distributed either, so there was no thought about making the film for a particular audience. In this sense, on top of some of the subject matter, Eraserhead can be seen to be Lynch’s most personal film.
The film did find an audience though, over time. After a private screening for the crew, their friends and family, Eraserhead had a proper premiere at the Filmex festival in 1977. Lynch felt the film was too long after this first screening though. He hastily cut the actual physical print, which is something you shouldn’t do. It made a bit of a mess of the material, but this was fixed and Lynch ended up with the 20-minutes shorter cut we have now, that he was happy with.
Eraserhead didn’t do any business initially until it entered the midnight movies circuit with the support of Ben Barenholtz, who began the phenomenon with his screenings of El Topo in 1970. They didn’t do any special promotion for Eraserhead, but word of mouth grew at these midnight screenings and a cult classic was born. The film may not have been to everyone’s tastes but it drew a lot of attention and got Lynch the job of directing The Elephant Man, which saw him attain mainstream success, truly launching him into the public consciousness.
Forty-three years after it initially hit cinemas, Eraserhead is getting a stunning new Blu-ray release as part of the Criterion Collection in the UK. I haven’t seen the film in a long while, so picked up a copy to see how it held up.
Eraserhead, like most of Lynch’s work, is a most unusual film, but at its heart is a fairly straightforward story. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is living alone in a tiny apartment in an unnamed gloomy, industrial city. He gets a message claiming his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), who he hasn’t heard from for a couple of months, wants him to come to dinner with her and her parents (played by Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates). He obliges and is subjected to a painfully awkwardly experience, involving uncomfortable conversation and strange a “man-made” mini-chicken that moves and oozes blood when he tries to carve it.
The disastrous meal ends with Mrs. X demanding to know if Henry has had sex with her daughter, which he struggles to answer. We soon learn the reason she asks this is that Mary has given birth to a baby, or at least they think it’s a baby, as it’s quite heavily deformed.
So the baby comes home with Henry, as does Mary, and the newly formed family plod on. The baby cries incessantly though, and the couple struggle to maintain their sanity. Mary ends up going back home to her parents, in fact, and Henry is left to look after their baby, who soon falls ill. As he struggles through this trial and is later lured into a sexual encounter with his attractive neighbour, Henry frequently drifts off into a bizarre dreamworld filled with strange sperm/umbilical cord creatures and ‘The Lady in the Radiator’, among other oddities. His fractured sanity eventually reaches a head in the film’s horrific finale.
Lynch refuses to ever explain what his films are ‘about’ but Eraserhead’s core theme, on the surface at least, seems fairly clear, despite its warped, surreal style. Lynch appears to be exploring the idea of being a father/parent. Indeed, he and Peggy, his wife at the time, had a child, Jennifer (who would go onto be a director in her adult life) a couple of years before Eraserhead began production. She was born with “severely clubbed feet” and they lived together in Philadelphia, which was described as a “crime-ridden poverty zone” at the time, so the setting and story are reflected in the film.
Being a parent, the film certainly speaks volumes to me. People rarely truly know what they’re in store for when they have their first child. It’s not all cuddles, cute giggles, happiness and joy. It’s largely sleepless nights, dealing with all manner of disgusting bodily fluids and worrying about the many times they fall ill, all the while trying to maintain your own sanity during the seemingly endless trudge of trying to keep them alive and well.
Eraserhead perfectly embodies this in a blend of satire and horror. Indeed it follows this order, with a first-half that can be quite disgusting at times but is largely very funny, in a pitch-black sort of way. However, once Mary gives up and Henry is left with the baby, things take a much darker, more nightmarish turn. The narrative largely dissipates and we’re left with an often terrifying journey to the film’s deeply disturbing conclusion.
Given the bizarre nature of it all, there are likely other ways you can read into Eraserhead, but this most obvious take on it works effectively enough to satisfy. It’s a powerful comment on the fear and monotony of child-rearing that should be shown to everyone thinking of having children, in my opinion, to let them know what they’re in for. It’s an extreme, outlandish version of parenting of course, and only shows one side of the story (there are cuddles, giggles, joy and happiness too), but it’s still a potent warning that bringing up a child is not all that easy.
Even without delving into the film’s themes, it has much to admire in terms of style. Visually it is incredibly striking. The image of Henry against an eraser-dust background that was used on the posters is iconic on its own, but practically every frame in the film has an unsettling beauty. The painstakingly slow production process clearly paid off, as every aspect of each shot and scene has been carefully laid out. DOPs Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes (the former had to exit the shoot after 9 months due to financial reasons) do a remarkable job of lighting the black and white film, casting a nightmarish gloom over everything.
Perhaps even more impressive though is the film’s sound design. Lynch and Alan Splet worked together to create a rich, intense soundscape that permeates every scene. From the sound of industrial machinery to the hiss of Henry’s radiator and the relentless wails of the baby, an oppressive atmosphere is maintained throughout. This only pauses during some of the Lady in the Radiator sequences, one of which provides a beautifully haunting song, ‘In Heaven’, which sounds decades ahead of its time (reminding me of Sparklehorse, who actually collaborated with Lynch on an album in 2009) yet equally timeless.
I could ramble on further about the film’s merits, but this review is growing unwieldy, so I’ll tie things up by saying It’s truly one of the most astonishing feature debuts in cinema history and remains a startling experience, even among the rest of Lynch’s boldly unique filmography. Beginning as a darkly humorous satire of family and child-rearing, it becomes a twisted, surreal nightmare that is hard to shake from your memory.
Eraserhead is out on 19th October on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is stunning. It looks wonderfully crisp and there’s incredible detail lurking in the blacks and greys. There’s a handy calibration option on the disc too, allowing you to adjust your settings to best suit the literally very dark film. The film’s stunning sound design comes through beautifully too. Criterion have really gone all out on this one.
There are plenty of special features included on top of this:
– New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director David Lynch, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– “Eraserhead” Stories, a 2001 documentary by Lynch on the making of the film
– New 2K digital restorations of six short films by Lynch: Six Men Getting Sick (1967), The Alphabet (1968), The Grandmother (1970), The Amputee, Version 1 and Version 2 (1974), and Premonitions Following an Evil Deed (1995), all with video introductions by Lynch
– New documentary featuring interviews with actors Charlotte Stewart and Judith Roberts, assistant to the director Catherine Coulson, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes
– Archival interviews with Lynch and members of the cast and crew
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: A booklet featuring an interview with Lynch from filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s 1997 book Lynch on Lynch
The shorts are a great addition to the set. A few of these are animated or have animated sections, which made me long for a feature-length Lynch animated film. They have the feel of Gilliam’s work with Monty Python. The shorts often have reproductive, birthing and parenting themes and symbolism, like Eraserhead. They’re not as polished as his debut feature but still demonstrate Lynch’s twisted imagination and penchant for striking, often disturbing imagery. I quite enjoyed the early animated shorts but the lengthier The Grandmother stood out for me, largely through it being more fully formed with a clearer narrative. The Amputee didn’t do much for me though, I’m afraid.
The feature-length ‘Eraserhead Stories’ gives an incredibly detailed account of the production process. It’s loaded with wonderful anecdotes and eye-opening facts about how the film was cobbled together. It’s largely just Lynch himself talking in front of the camera, with stills and a few clips over the top, but Catherine E. Coulson (AD and assistant camera – married to Nance at the time) phones in to add several stories. There is some talk about the numerous deleted scenes too, and it’s a shame they aren’t available. I’m guessing they were lost after Lynch’s botch-job of cutting them out after the film’s initial screening.
The various archive interviews are also of interest, particularly one of the oldest ones that sees Lynch and Elmes discuss the film on one of the locations, not long after the film was finished (I think). A lovely piece from the 90s also sees Lynch and some of the cast and crew head back to the stables and share recollections. There’s a French interview that is rather unusual and doesn’t add much, though it’s amusing listening to Nance and Lynch discuss what they’d like for lunch. Lynch likes to eat the same thing every day but goes through different phases.
There is a notable lack of analysis of the film from critics or otherwise within the supplemental material. Knowing Lynch’s dislike to explain what his films are about, this may be at his request.
I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately. Overall though, the set comes very highly recommended.