Tag Archives: Eraserhead

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man posterAs I write this I seem to have begun a little David Lynch season for myself so there will no doubt be a few direct comparisons here to Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, as I take a look at his second, a film that on paper couldn’t be much more different, the real life story of Joseph (here John) Merrick, aka The Elephant Man.

From the opening it felt a bit like we might be heading back into Eraserhead territory as we are greeted, following the titles, by a nightmarish monochrome montage with Merrick’s mother, an elephant and a noisy discordant soundtrack.

After this though it settles down, for the most part, into a more conventional period drama type piece charting Merrick’s (John Hurt) life from being seen in a ‘freak show’ by Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) to being taken into the London Hospital and what happens from there.

Of course the rightly most discussed aspect of The Elephant Man is John Hurt’s performance as Merrick. Almost completely subsumed in prosthetics that are, for the most part, entirely convincing, Hurt’s portrayal is masterful, eliciting real emotion through his eyes, movements and slurred voice in truly effecting manner.

In many ways it is this performance that anchors the connection to Lynch’s other early features as Hurt’s Merrick is, like Henry in Eraserhead, something of a wide-eyed innocent being bombarded by the world around him.

The Elephant Man - Hopkins and Hurt

John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins

Added to this his growth as a young man has slight links with Kyle MacLachlan’s performance as Paul Muad’Dib Atreides in Lynch’s adaptation of Dune.

The film is something of a double-header as Hurt is accompanied throughout the story by Hopkins as Treves and, while far more conventional a piece of acting, it is equally impressive as Hopkins is when he wants to be.

Stylistically Lynch makes some interesting choices throughout the film, as you might expect. The monochrome photography, ably executed by Freddie Francis, works excellently to add to the Victorian period feel and is clean and crisp in a way that shows real detail while allowing shadows to lurk where necessary and create an unsettling atmosphere, particularly in the first and third acts.

Added to this the tone of the film switches expertly throughout from moments of melodrama to serious cinema to almost Hammer Horror to nightmarish reminiscent of the industrial apocalypse of Eraserhead. Lynch manages these changes of aspect so they don’t clash but cause a great effect on the viewer in a way rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

The Elephant Man - David Lynch

David Lynch on set of The Elephant Man

Building to an entirely satisfying climax The Elephant Man concludes on a more sedate dream-like montage which I couldn’t help but notice bears a strong resemblance to the opening images of Lynch’s next film Dune, which set my mind spinning with ideas.

On top of all this it fires ideas in the mind of the viewer around the meaning of human dignity and human rights that, while they aren’t fully explored, are clearly intentional and, like much of Lynch’s work, give the film a life long after it has ended, certainly a hallmark of a great film in any situation.

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Eraserhead

Eraserhead posterWhere does one start with David Lynch’s debut feature film, Eraserhead?

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.

eraserhead elevator - Jack Nance

Nance as Henry takes the elevator

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.

eraserhead dinner

Mr X and Henry at dinner

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.

Eraserhead exterior

Henry takes a walk

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!

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