So much has been written and said about it since 1976 this may well be redundant and as I write I’m still in something of a state of shock following such a mesmerisingly intense experience.
The story follows a young man named Henry (Lynch regular Jack, here credited as John, Nance) who we (and he) discover has fathered a child with a girl named Mary (Charlotte Stewart another member of Lynch’s ensemble of players). After a quick marriage Mary moves into Henry’s rather basic apartment with their baby, and so on.
All that sounds rather normal when described like that but, surrounding a plot that could easily come from a fairly standard drama, or even soap opera, Lynch constructs a world like no other, part post-apocalyptic hell, part internalised nightmare-scape, part 1950’s Americana.
The nearest touchstone I could think of during the first part of Eraserhead was Richard Lester’s surreal vision of post-nuclear war London, The Bed Sitting Room.
From there though Lynch’s work adds layer upon layer of questions with absolutely no answers making the audience find what they will in the building torment of Henry.
From the start it’s hard to not conclude that everything here is designed to unsettle. The clash of standard dramatic conventions with nightmare visions is the broad stroke of this, but it comes in many forms with a non-stop barrage of noise, all seemingly diegetic but often unexplained, with volume levels often entirely mismatching what we are seeing on-screen.
Equally the set design, limited though it is to a few rooms and exteriors, all shot in black and white, is unapologetically stark but with a decrepit industrial richness that defies its low-budget origins.
Moments like the early family dinner scene are at once wholesome in the way of 1950s middle America and horrifically corrupt with its man-made mini-chickens – here in particular the idea of maintaining normality in the face of extreme horror, as seen in The Bed Sitting Room, springs to mind.
And then there is the baby… I don’t think there are words to describe or translate this creation without seeing it in action but suffice to say it is at once astonishing and agonisingly atrocious, not because it’s poorly constructed, but because it is quite so convincingly real and never fully explained.
Nance’s performance as Henry is a largely understated tour de force that helps the rest of the film with creating its own sense of totally unnatural naturalism and he is as mesmerising as the visuals with his innocent, wide-eyed expression leading us through what may be his own nightmare.
The second half of the film just turns this all up even further and there are moments that suggest things to come in Lynch’s later work on Dune, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway before it all comes to a sudden, enigmatic, haunting climax.
Words like unique and visionary are bandied about all too regularly but with Eraserhead David Lynch created something that is certainly both of things.
As much a work of art as it is a horror film and as much a soap opera as it is an exploration of a broken society, it sets the scene for much of Lynch’s work to come as it asks many questions and emphatically refuses to give any answers – and believe me I don’t have any either!