Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Night of Terror #8: Eraserhead

What up what up what up. Tonight's horror spooktacular is Eraserhead by David Lynch. Because such a terrifying experience is too much for my mortal nerves, I pass the reins to Mr. Oswald Hobbes, he of the Audio Assault podcast and various karaoke and open-mic nights in coffeehouses around the country. Here he is:

Wow. Hello. May I start by saying, Hey, it's really great to be here again. Joe spends a lot of time loitering around my stomping grounds in Old Jollyville - I often catch a glimpse of his distinctive profile at the corner store or the Whataburger, hovering, taking in the tableau - so it's nice to return the favor once a year here on 31 Nights of Terror! dot com. Joe's the guy who invites you to his apartment for an "adult Halloween party" and you show up ready to really “get down” but he just meant there was going to be some suggestive funk music soundtracking the evening's events (which include bobbing for apples and making/eating taffy apples). He's a great guy and he scared us all a lot last year with this project, so let's give the guy a hand. I'm lucky to have a front row seat, as it were, here in beautiful Central Texas, from which to watch the festivities ramp up. I've heard there's actually a Halloween-themed fireworks display planned for the final night - and a screening of John Cusack's THE RAVEN in 70mm!

Now: Eraserhead! Written, directed, and produced by David Lynch. A true labor of love - Lynch slaved diligently for years to complete it and then waited even longer for it to catch on with discerning audiences and become the quintessential midnight movie of the 1980s. It's a daunting piece of work; concessions to narrative or thematic clarity are few and far between, and the images, while striking and original, lack the bright, deliberately artificial luster of Lynch's more conventionally “watchable” later works (Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, the television series Twin Peaks and its underrated companion film Fire Walk With Me).  

But the truth about Eraserhead is this: you don't necessarily need to strap yourself into any complicated apparatus (physical or mental) to appreciate it. Because, a) it's not that Serious and b) in the same way that certain moments in any David Lynch movie will silence even the rowdiest, most jaded crowds, Eraserhead doesn't just demand your attention but violently and unapologetically grabs it. I found myself slack-jawed and wide-eyed throughout, unable to look away during even the most disgusting/excruciatingly boring parts.

Have you ever seen Eraserhead? I should've started by asking this. In case you have not: it depicts a brief period in the life of a character named Henry Spencer (who seems to be at least partially based on Lynch himself), which happens to include his eventual ascendence into a Heaven-like environment/state of being. And I don't think it counts as a spoiler to say that, because I don't even know what happens in this movie. The important thing is that this is not actually a difficult or frustrating experience; it's unconventional, and at times unpleasant, but it's by no means impossible. In fact: Lynch is working at such elevated levels of metaphor and symbolism that you can take this one pretty much however you want to.

When we meet Henry Spencer, he's "on vacation." He ambles aimlessly around a cold, imposingly industrialized city, assaulted by the rude ambient clatter of factories and street noise and hissing steam. He has formed strange relationships with the objects in his filthy one-room apartment; sometimes he stares at the radiator while a tiny woman with a deformed face sings to him from a lit stage (with curtains and everything) inside the radiator.

His life is suddenly given purpose, if not meaning, when, while stammering through some seriously awkward pre-dinner small talk, he's informed by the mother of his former paramour that she (the paramour) has given birth to a thing that is probably not a baby but still requires the level of care and attention that you would give to a baby, and that she (the paramour) and it (the mutant baby) will be moving to live with Henry, in the aforementioned apartment, as a family unit.

And this is where things really get nightmarish, because the mutant baby never stops crying and the wife leaves to pursue sleep and Henry is woefully inadequate as a caretaker. The situation becomes more nightmarish yet again when Henry has an actual nightmare, in which his head falls off and then through several different worlds and is ultimately turned into (spoiler) pencil erasers at a pencil factory. There's also a romantic interlude with The Beautiful Girl Across The Hall and a climactic battle in which the mutant baby is suddenly huge.

As best I can tell, Eraserhead is about one man's response to/gradual acceptance of the modern world. Think about the opening shot, as The Man In The Planet does stuff with the levers while Henry screams and then those little sperms come out of Henry's mouth. The mutant baby is conceived in the grip of this unmanageable terror. What Henry has to do (spoiler: he eventually does this) is cut open the bandages the mutant baby is swaddled in to reveal that the bandages were the only thing holding its organs together. This knowledge makes the mutant baby (aka Henry's horror at the ugliness that surrounds him) a lot easier to kill with a scissor. And this is the most perfectly realized slice of a true auteur's energy field you will ever have the pleasure to taste, because it contains, as its most special ingredient, this auteur's personal key for unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Eraserhead isn't Lynch's best movie, but you need to see it to fully appreciate the even better stuff that came later. Beyond that, you need to see it to truly live, man. It’s a trip!

The real question, though: was Joe right to let me cover Eraserhead for his explicitly horror-themed blog? I doubt it. So let me say this: this is one of the scariest movies I've ever seen! If you watch it in a theater with a sound system that really cranks, it will (metaphorically) cut open the bandages that hold your whole shit together and then stab your heart with a scissor.

In Heaven, everything is fine, am I right?


  1. I recorded a snippet of 'Eraserhead' dialogue from my soundtrack CD to make the first answering machine message I ever had. "Is your name Henry?" [long pause] "Yeah..." "Girl named Mary called from the pay phone." I eventually changed it because people were too confused by it to leave me any messages.

    1. I think that may be the best Ira Brooker story I've ever heard.