Eraserhead is, in the words of its creator, David Lynch, “a dream of dark and troubling things”. How else to describe such a film, which so defies traditional story structure? That presents eerie narrative fragments that drift between heightened reality and pure outer-space weirdness? Its only logic is dream logic. It causes critics to use copious amounts of verbiage, and most filmgoers to scratch their heads. It is the ultimate midnight movie.
In my case, it was the ultimate 7:00 pm movie, as I took in a special screening at the Fine Arts Theater in Asheville on October 16. The Fine Arts Theater is devoted to regular showings of recently released independent features, both narrative and documentary. Films that may skip the local multiplex are presented here for audiences to discover. Though copies of a recently restored 35mm print exist, the Theater screened a digital projection of the Lynch-approved DVD release. The black and white cinematography, full of deep shadows, is well represented here, with limited film scratches. The speakers rattle with the sound design, made up of a cacophony of industrial noise and otherworldly ambience.
To describe it in terms of surface plot, Eraserhead is the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), an even-tempered man with an electric shock bouffant, who lives in a noisy urban wasteland. The constant buzz and whir of the factories follows him even into his sparse apartment. He has a girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), whom he notices has not been around lately. One night, he meets her and her parents for dinner, in an extended absurdist riff on the awkward dinner trope, in this case involving nursing dogs, bleeding chickens, and the sexual advances of Mary’s mother. Henry learns of a baby, born premature, at the hospital. “They’re still not sure it is a baby!” Mary cries, and her concern seems justified once we actually see it.
Henry and Mary’s progeny remains one of the great mysteries of movie special effects. A slimy, misshapen creature, the Baby looks like E.T. as a fetus. With its calf’s head attached by a stalk to its light bulb-shaped body, wrapped in a tight cocoon of bandages, it is a bizarre sight to behold. We look at it with a mix of fascination and revulsion, and we buy wholly that this could be a living thing. It breathes and blinks, a startling technical achievement complemented by Alan Splet’s sound work. Henry regards it with warm paternal affection, even as his new spouse begins to lose her mind from its constant wailing and fussy eating. When she eventually flees back to her parent’s home, Henry must deal with caring for the child on his own. It plays like a horrific mediation on unplanned parenthood, the reluctant father with a newfound burden. In one scene, Henry tries to leave the apartment, but finds that the baby wails every time he opens the door. He closes it, the wailing ceases. It’s a situation many child caretakers may find familiar, but in Lynch’s nightmare world, it is darkly hinted that the baby is intentionally provoking him.
Jack Nance plays Henry as a dreamer and an observer, distracted by tiny details. In a deleted scene that plays under the DVD menu, he manipulates a dead cat with a wire attached to his foot, a look of intense interest on his face. It’s a strange world that Henry lives in, and he perceives it all with reactions ranging from casual interest to paralyzed horror. He is the most identifiable character in the film, our guide through this dark landscape, and Nance gives a sympathetic performance. Henry finds escape by staring into the depths of his apartment radiator, imagining a tiny stage within it, where a woman with growths on her cheeks performs for his amusement. “In Heaven, everything is fine,” she sings, and we can tell he’d like nothing more but to join her there. What he does to escape into that world is nothing short of horrific.