Eraserhead (1977): Lynch’s Cult/Midnight Movie

David Lynch moved to Los Angeles in 1970 to attend the American Film Institute.

At AFI, he made a short, “The Grandmother” (1971), about a lonely, abused boy who grows a loving grandmother from seed. The two are briefly happy, but then she dies and shortly after he does too.


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In 1972, Lynch began working on Eraserhead, a nightmarish vision of life on the weird fringes of the urban industrial wasteland. The movie took several years, but it was brought to the screen uncensored from Lynch’s unconscious.

Recluse Henry Spencer (played by cult actor Jack Nance) lives in squalor, moving through a creepy, foreboding landscape. Henry’s towering pompadour was the eeriest coiffure to be seen since Elsa Lanchester’s in Bride of Frankenstein and Dean Stockwell’s in The Boy With Green Hair. A spaced-out daydreamer, his fantasy is to have his head used as an eraser. He courts Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), a shy, traumatized girl who lives a cloistered existence with her obnoxious parents. They marry and she gives birth to a “baby,” a hideous thing that seems to have no skin.

Nature goes awry, and Mary gives birth to a series of strange creatures. Domestic tranquility is short-lived: mother leaves her anguished husband alone with the creatures. While Henry drifts off into Lewis Carroll dreams of a theater behind his radiator, the baby cries hysterically. Henry’s dormant paternal instincts are stirred, eventually leading to a climax of unbearable intensity, when he kills the first and most gruesome of his offsprings.

In the final montage, Henry goes from committing infanticide on his mutant, horse-faced love-child, to dancing with a white-haired woman who seems to have huge marshmallows implanted on her cheeks. He is decapitated for his crime, and his head is processed into eraser-topped pencils–the organic defeated by the inorganic realizes his fantasy. Though infused with an atmosphere of intense isolation, Henry’s odyssey is leavened with grim humor. Gross comedy dominates a dinner scene, where John watches his mother-in-law demolish a squab with orgasmic relish, while bloody mini-chickens writhe on the table.

A stream of sub-consciousness, packed with grotesque physical deformities and quest for spiritual purity, Eraserhead is Lynch’s most surreal work. Its brilliance depends on non-narrative elements, particularly imagery: With slight adjustment in lighting, a steam radiator looks like the facade of the Metropolitan Opera. Alan Splet’s weird, eerie sound, and Fred Elmes and Herbert Caldwell’s dense black-and-white photography, reinforce the claustrophobic ambience of the gloomy post-industrial landscape.

Eraserhead was greeted with revulsion when it appeared, but, as J. Hoberman noted, the film was so perversely and coherently articulated that it defied comparison to any other film. Its surreal style and narrative ambiguity recalled the early work of Luis Bunuel (Un Chien Andalou) and Salvador Dali. A combination of black comedy (grotesquely deformed babies are not subject for jokes), social satire, and special effects informed the film, which created a nightmare, in which successive layers of reality seem to dissolve, with depressing metaphysical overtones. Eraserhead pushed the viewers to a terrifying apocalyptic vortex with effects that were amazing, considering the shoestring budget (a grant from AFI). Lynch shot the movie at night in old stables (part of the AFI’s headquarters), but the inspiration was Philadelphia, which he described as “the sleaziest, most corrupt, decadent, sick, fear-ridden, twisted city on the face of the earth.”

First shown at Filmex 1977, the movie was not widely seen until 1978, when it came to the attention of entrepreneur Ben Barenholtz. Despite mixed to unfavorable reviews, it ran for years as a midnight attraction at Greenwich Village’s Waverly Theatre.

Over the years, the movie’s weirdness has developed a cult following in other cities as well. “I wasn’t thinking of a midnight audience when I made it,” Lynch said, “It was a student film.”

Eventually, Eraserhead became one of the most successful American avant-garde films, establishing a precedent for other eccentric indies.