Late to the Party: Eraserhead

For a long time now, I’ve considered David Lynch to be one of my favourite directors. It started with Twin Peaks getting its hooks into me, as I’d long heard of how influential it was on genre television of the 1990s, and while it was never as consistent as I might’ve liked, when it was at its best it left an indescribable and memorable impact on me. From there, I was drawn into many of his other works, with films like Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet finding their way into my somewhat amorphously defined list of favourite movies.

And yet, despite that, I had never seen Eraserhead. I’m not sure what it was, but there was something intimidating about it; perhaps it had to do with the fact that I knew there were at least some elements of body horror in it, which is something that I’m not always up for. Or maybe it was as simple as not being sure that an artist’s first work will live up to your expectations, when you’re familiar with the kinds of things they’ve done later on in their career.

Regardless, I knew it was time to finally push past all of that and watch the damn film, so I did. And now here I am, attempting to put words on the metaphorical page about it, because it feels kind of like watching Eraserhead once does not give you nearly enough knowledge to intelligently talk about it.

If anyone has gotten this far and is unfamiliar with the film, the basic gist of it is that it’s about a man named Henry (Jack Nance), who lives in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian industrial wasteland, who learns that his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) has recently given birth to… well, something that’s almost, but not entirely, unlike a human baby. I’m going to avoid major spoilers here, but most of the film revolves around Henry trying to take care of the baby, interspersed with some extended dream sequences that deal with anxieties around sex and reproduction, and also may take place entirely inside of a steam radiator.

It’s heady stuff, and, in large part, most of it is accomplished with very little dialogue. But it’s by no means a quiet film, as there’s a rich and frequently unsettling soundscape that can be heard nearly constantly throughout the film. Henry’s apartment often sounds like it’s been built in the middle of a factory floor, as there’s a constant hum of mechanical noises, electrical interference, and hissing steam. It definitely adds to the claustrophobic feel of the movie, like there’s not a second of rest to be found within it.

The visuals play a role in that feeling, too. Some of the exterior establishing shots make me think of Stanley Kubrick, as the cold, rundown concrete of Henry’s home has shades of A Clockwork Orange. But the interior sets are quite different, messy and textured, like the dead plant stuck in a giant pile of dirt on Henry’s nightstand, or the tufts of grasslike material that are strewn around the apartment. Then there’s the visceral biological effects for the baby, which I found a little hard to watch at points, though in fairness I think they were meant to be.

If I have one criticism of the film, it’s that it felt a little bit detached at points. While Henry is a relatable protagonist, in some ways, he is mostly a very passive one (with one very notable exception at the end). That left me feeling a bit cold towards him, and thus like I was at a bit of an arm’s length from the narrative, since he’s so central to it. Again, this may very well be intentional, but it did make things feel a bit slow in a few places for me.

t’s a fascinating film, and it really feels like Lynch’s artistic vision arrived almost fully formed, with some incredibly memorable images and soundscapes. Ultimately, I’m not sure that I’m going to revisit this one as often as some of Lynch’s other work, as it’s a pretty tough watch for me, but I am glad I finally set aside some time to get through it.