David Lynch, the American prodigal son of surrealistic cinema, has his roots hung up in the depressing industrial background that Eraserhead finds itself confined. After a series of short movies, Eraserhead is Lynch’s first feature movie, albeit an homage to the Father of Surreal Cinema, Luis Buñuel, and the beginning of a new wave in American cinema—perhaps the Lynchien Cinema. Eraserhead is grave, menacing, and open to multiple interpretations, but is largely a movie that serves as a tribute to surrealism and a mockery of the inconsistencies prevailing in the society during the 60s and the 70s. Dark and twisted, the movie is a demolishment derby of human sexuality and desires signifying the trapped, caged predicament of humans beneath the qualms of duty, responsibility, and self-will. In all possibilities, David Lynch sees parts of his psyches in Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) drawing a surreal parallel between Lynch’s own condition during those years at the American Film Institute (AFI) and the condition of the docile, unresponsive being of a human.
Henry Spencer happens to execute the sanest expression of love to his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), one unknown day. Consequently, Mary X gives birth to a child—a deformed child—and her mother (Jeanne Bates) forces the two to marry into a happy union. Nevertheless, this Spencer Jnr. is different. Resembling a human spermatozoon bandaged all the way up to his neck, young Spender Jnr. doesn’t eat anything, cries nonstop, and becomes a pain for its mother. Agitated, Mary decides to leave the premise and return to her parents leaving the child to Henry. The already poor soul trapped in a marriage not so perfect, a child who isn’t human, a Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) who enjoys stomping spermatozoon-like creatures, and a dangerous attraction to a Sexy Siren (Judith Anna Roberts) living opposite his room, Henry Spencer’s challenge has only just seen light. Repressing urges towards the sexual entity and controlling impulses to stomp upon the responsibility, Henry Spencer has now to tackle reality and crack a balance between his responsibilities and the imaginary world calling for him. It is Spencer vs. Spencer, literally—and one could draw multiple analogies in this Spencer saga!
At the lowest echelon, Eraserhead is a surrealist film containing various undercurrent themes, especially tinges of sexuality and the call for freedom. Calling it mere surrealist cinema would be an understatement though. Deeper scrutiny suggests that it’s also a highly satirical film. Using the extraterrestrial components as sadistic humor, Henry Spencer is a character chained into this bizarrely uncomfortable mechanical setting, accompanied by the vileness of rot, dirt, compulsion, and disgust. Almost decaying in this condition, Spencer looks at the Lady in the Radiator as his escapist other half, and her destruction of the sperm-like creatures that fall from nowhere, without her consent—with a huge grin while stomping them—signifies Spencer’s core desire: to get rid of the duty, thus embarrassment thereon, of his deformed child.
The deformed child may just act as a motif representing a person’s attitude towards children, in general. Both Spencer and Mary seem to be more than willing to abandon the child. In the case of Mary, more so than Spencer, as she seems to have a straightforward will to remain free and devoid of such a burden, as she would explain. Spencer feels differently. He is stuck in the middle—willing to escape but not having the influence to do what he desires. Hence, he roams around in his own imageries. Dreaming at times of a world of surrealism, whilst sulking into the glooms of the everyday pangs repressing his desires, Spencer’s surrounding of the disjointed interior and the menacing exterior is a mere representation of his psychological state of affairs—equally disjointed and nauseatingly congested.
Beyond the entrenched psychological warps, liberation is the key leitmotif of the movie. During the end sequences, when Spencer liberates his child from the binding sheathe—the child transforms from a state of vegetation to when he appears to come into life growing in prominence. Covered by a thick cream-like substance, Spencer Jnr. is free from the bondage binding him—liberated and salvaged. Immediately following the scene, Spencer embraces the Lady in the Radiator, in a bitter ending, specifying that Spencer melded the woman’s earlier acts of stomping the creatures to his own action of untying the child from misery, thereby liberating himself and his child from each other and perhaps the tepid conditions of Spencer’s inhospitable chamber. The liberation, here, from the bondage that tied them together, that tied Spencer in this rotting setting, that tied Spencer against the Sexy Siren, and the bondage that tied Spencer to his wife—therefore her family, and the society.
The eloquent art direction by David Lynch and the pitch perfect designing of scenes by the team of first Herbert Cardwell and later Frederic Elmes lay the groundwork for this artistic classic—establishing a dreamlike, murky mood, whilst presenting its material through the lens of hallucination. The story moves with an intoxicated, dismal tone, and the environment around dampens the spirit—making Spencer an object of sympathy for all he undergoes, physically and mentally. The art direction and cinematography are two shining gems in the movie. With the method of minimalist dialogs and actions, the scenery expresses the story and moves it forward. Dialogs only in intervals, far away and in between, much of the sequences are for the eyes to decipher than the ears to listen. The dejected paradise that is the mechanical town of Philadelphia and the antithesis of heaven that is Spencer’s room is pure work of artistry by the holder of the lens and the creator of the blue condition.
Aiding to this blueness is sound designer Alan Splet and of course, David Lynch himself. The duo strikes another ace with the sound design. Using real sound samples and mixing them together, the sound effects create a gloomy atmosphere emphasizing on the ambience and working as a symmetrical toxin to the emotional state of the movie—giving the viewers the feel of the filth that the movie proudly proclaims to be. The cries of the baby, the stunning silence around, and the ruptured state of the characters in the movie, Eraserhead uses the available filming technique to its finest and the result is of a surreal piece of dark literature—not just a dark movie.
Inspired by Lynch’s own experiences, vastly, Eraserhead is an escapist movie. It is the antithesis of glamorization showing a world of filthiness and abhorrence. Adding to the dystopian setting, the manner of filming, the demoralizing pessimism, and the suggestive taboos romancing the movie, undeniably Eraserhead is a tribute to filmmaking by one of the most potent filmmakers of this era. Not for the everyday audience and generally a movie with much negativity surrounding it, Eraserhead is an experience into a possessed style of filmmaking where intoxication and delusion meet and give birth to a gross adventure, an unparalleled odyssey. Call this a prototype—a benchmark indeed.