What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Eraserhead?

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Finally, I have seen a David Lynch film. This was one of the biggest gaps in my film knowledge (although there are countless others); I’ve seen so many comments along the lines of ‘this reminds me of David Lynch’ or ‘those scenes were very Lynchian’, and I had no idea what they were talking about. So I finally decided to check out his work and thought I’d start at the beginning with his 1977 work Eraserhead.

Jesus Christ. I was not prepared for this.

Plot: Harry Spencer (Jack Nance) is invited to dinner with his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and her family. However, when he gets there he’s informed that Mary has had a baby, although she’s not sure if what she’s given birth to is human. The pair move in together but Mary soon leaves when she can’s deal with the baby’s incessant crying, leaving Harry to deal with it all by himself.

And that’s about all I can say about the plot. Not because I don’t want to, but because I genuinely don’t know how to describe any more of it than that. It’s a virtually impossible film to explain; it’s hugely surrealist and good chunks, if not all, of it are up for interpretation. You may well find some Dali and Buñuel influences in there. Lynch has also clearly been influenced by German expressionist cinema; the chiaroscuro lighting, themes of madness, angular cinematography are all there in abundance. Even the ‘Man in the Planet’ character (Jack Fisk) feels like he’s been taken straight from an expressionist film.

Even though there is some semblance of a plot, some scenes are utterly crazy and are rather random, although no doubt have some deeper meaning. For instance, the film starts with the aforementioned Man in the Planet pulling some levers, causing a sperm like creature to come out of Harry’s mouth and land in a puddle. Later on we have Harry’s head falling off, replaced by his baby’s weird little alien head. Harry’s head then falls from the sky, is picked up by a child and taken to a man who turns his head into pencil erasers. Very, very odd.

Then there’s the below scene featuring The Lady in the Radiator…

This has been stuck in my head for days; I feel like it’s infected my brain! Creepy but mesmerising, which pretty much sums the film up.

Basically, if you’re not one who likes their films with a massive side of weird, then this is most definitely not for you.

But it’s not just weird; it’s really quite unsettling and disturbing, too. There are body-horror elements to it that will likely make you cringe and recoil, whilst pretty much the whole thing feels like one big nightmare from start to finish. It’s rarely clear whether anything is real or a dream and trying to piece the whole thing together can be really rather exhausting. It feels like a product of the subconscious, with imagery that a psychologist would have a field day with.

At times it’s very claustrophobic with tight, intimidating interiors that seem to close in on Harry as the film progresses, whilst the sound is also hugely unnerving. There’s a pretty much constant droning throughout, sometimes building to louder, almost unbearable screeching, which only adds to the atmosphere.

However, all that being said, there’s something intriguing about the film. Maybe it’s because of its reputation, but never once did I feel like not watching or turning the film off. I wanted to see what was in store for me next and just where this head trip would go. I’m still not sure whether I actually enjoyed it or not but it’s a film I’m glad I’ve seen, even if it acts as nothing more than an introduction to Lynch’s other work.

Eraserhead

My Interpretation

Whilst a full analysis of Eraserhead would probably take entire books’ worth of material, and could even prove to be impossible, I thought I’d at least offer a few thoughts on what I took some of the film to mean. Spoilers below…

The main theme that I felt ran through Eraserhead was a fear of commitment, more specifically of being married and becoming a parent. Harry turns up at his girlfriend’s house and is, out of blue, told that she’s had his child, something he’s completely unprepared for. At the beginning of the film, The Man in the Planet releases a sperm-like creature from Harry, perhaps suggesting that he wasn’t in control or was unaware when he impregnated his girlfriend. Perhaps he raped her?

Harry then stays for dinner at his girlfriend’s house, where her father has ‘made’ baby chickens and he asks Harry to carve them. As Harry is about to carve, the chickens start moving and as he plunges the knife in, blood pours out. This infanticide, also classic foreboding, could suggest that he is worried about being unable to care for the child and is worried about causing it harm. During these scenes, both Harry’s girlfriend and her mother have some sort of weird convulsion. Is he concerned about faulty genes being passed down to his child?

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We then get to see the child, and as you can see above, it’s pretty horrific (there are stories about it being some kind of actual embalmed calf). Imagine giving birth to that! I saw this as Harry’s concern that any child he may have would be deformed in some way, and when his girlfriend walks out on them, this is surely a fear of being a single parent and, again, being unable to cope. I also see this mirrored by all of the dead plants in Harry’s apartment – he’s worried that he can’t make anything grow.

By this point, we have also been introduced the Beautiful Girl Across The Hall (Judith Roberts) with whom Harry later ends up having sex (in a cauldron, of course). To me, she represents the temptation of a third party whilst in a relationship. However, she is scared away by the baby; perhaps a fear of Harry’s that he won’t be able to attract another partner now he has a child.

Then we come on to The Lady in the Radiator. I see her as Harry’s angel, all in white, offering him a solution to all his problems. Before she sings her song, she appears on stage, stepping on lots of little sperm-like creatures. She’s Harry’s desire to be infertile so he doesn’t have any children. “In heaven, everything is fine”, the refrain she sings – a suggestion that Harry should kill himself and/or the child in order to be happy. Why the weird hamster cheeks? No idea.

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The scene in which Harry’s head falls off to be replaced by one similar to that of his child’s is a very odd one and really takes the film into full-on surrealist territory. This could be Harry concerned that the baby will grow up to be like him: a case of inadequacy and self-loathing on Harry’s part. The following scenes of Harry’s head falling from the sky and then being turned into pencil eraser are completely beyond me. Again, no idea whatsoever.

Harry heeds the advice of The Lady in the Radiator and kills the baby, stabbing it in the same way he stabbed the baby chicken earlier in the film. The baby’s head then becomes bigger and bigger; Harry can’t get away from it. The levers being pulled by the Man in the Planet begin to spark and the planet cracks. This is Harry finally breaking down before killing himself and joining his Lady in the Radiator. Is she someone he has previously lost? His mother or wife? Possibly.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film. Did you enjoy it? What the hell is it about? Comment below and let me know what you think.

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51 thoughts on “What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Eraserhead?

  1. woah! Creepy! I MUST watch this when i get back from my travels…it’s the 1st on my list! Great post, really interesting & very thorough. I’ll let you know my interpretation when I watch it 🙂

    • Thanks! Funnily enough, when I wrote this I actually had you pegged as someone who would definitely have seen this! Such is your fondness for fucked up stuff 😉

      • haha! you’d be surprised, eh!

        Well I must admit – i’ve seen some Lynch before (Mulholland, Twin Peaks, Inland Empire) and not clicked but am in the process of giving another go 🙂
        ……starting with Blue Velvet and Eraserhead!

      • Good stuff! This was my first Lynch film and I think it’s too early to tell whether I like his stuff yet, but this certainly left an impression on me, that’s for sure.

  2. Top work. I remember watching it on the big screen for a special screening and it was mindblowing. It’s the only time I’ve felt sick watching a film, however!

  3. Tyson Carter says:

    Never seen it, sounds mental! 🙂

  4. Cameron says:

    It’s probably the only movie I’ve ever seen where I truly lost all sense of time and became totally lost in it, like I was trapped in an awful yet fascinating dream. I’ll have to watch this again.

  5. keith7198 says:

    Confession: I’ve never went back and watch this. I’m not the biggest David Lynch fan and that’s one reason. Still I should’ve seen it by now and this may spur me on.

  6. ckckred says:

    Nice review. This is one of my favorite movies. I feel that the baby represents Harry’s sins (spoiler’s alert) when he kills it at the end and is embraced by The Lady in the Radiator he has redeemed himself. In fact, Stanley Kubrick said Eraserhead was one of his favorite movies. I recommend checking out Mulholland Drive next, that’s not only my favorite Lynch film but also in my personal top five.

    • That’s an interesting interpretation, I can go with that one. What do you reckon his sins were? Or do you not think it matters?
      I remember reading that Kubrick made the cast and crew of The Shining watch this to get in the mood for making a horror film so he clearly thought very highly of it.
      And thanks for the recommendation, I’ll definitely be checking out Mulholland Drive at some point as that seems to be one of his major films.

      • ckckred says:

        I think Harry’s sins include having a child with his girlfriend as well as having an affair with the woman next door. I’ve seen the movie a few times trying to fully grasp it.

        Mulholland Drive’s great and Lost Highway’s also very surrealistic. Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks are more linear works by Lynch and I also highly recommend them.

      • Oh yeah, Twin peaks, i forgot about that. I definitely want to see that at some point.

        That interpretation definitely makes sense. I don’t even know if there is a right or wrong answer, there are so many possibilities!

  7. You’re never seen David Lynch film until now! Jees. It always amazes me the things people haven’t seen. Well, if you thought “Eraserhead” was hard to interpret, (And btw you did a very good job with it, especially after only one viewing.) you’re gonna really have trouble with “Mulholland Dr.” and “INLAND EMPIRE”.

    Also, you shouldn’t have started your Lynch quest with “Eraserhead”. I got into this discussion once with some friends of mine once, and we were debating this, as one of the group, was like you and hadn’t seen a David Lynch film, and we ended up agreeing that-eh, when introducing Lynch to somebody, it’s probably best to start with “Blue Velvet”. I know with most people it’s good to start from the beginning, and see their work improve as transition throughout their career, but, there’s something a little mean about introducing “Eraserhead” on an unsuspecting mind, so based in the order, of how the audience can grasp Lynch, as oppose to, us analyzing Lynch’s career, how we normally analyze a director’s work, we agreed “Blue Velvet” is Beginner Lynch, and then get into the other stuff. So, hopefully that’s a helpful note for you. Believe me, I understand though, I started with “Mulholland Dr.” myself, I shoulda been warned, so, good luck with Lynch. You’re in for a…, dream.

    • Yep, it amazes me that I haven’t seen some stuff and I was very eager to at least get started with some of Lynch’s stuff. I think Blue Velvet is on Netflix (UK) so I’ll try and give that a watch at some point and I have Lost Highway on Blu-ray to check out. Mulholland Drive is also high on the agenda.

      Obviously I don’t know how Eraserhead compares to Lynch’s other stuff but it certainly felt like a bit of a baptism of fire! Thanks for the recommendations and advice David.

  8. Honestly, I’ve never seen this one either. Your quote “I’m still not sure whether I actually enjoyed it or not” is probably why I haven’t. LOL. I know what it is, and I’m not anxious to sign up for it! 😯

    • Well maybe I’ll submit this as a Readers’ Recommendation! 😉 It is an odd one though and you have to just go with it. If you’re not prepared to just embrace it’s strangeness then it’ll likely do nothing for you. I don’t know if and when I’ll ever revisit it to be honest.

  9. filmhipster says:

    A lot like Berberian Sound Studio….you just don’t know what the hell you just saw.
    I was traumatized by this film for quite a while.

    • I heard a lot of people say Berberian Sound Studio was quite Lynchian but having not seen any of Lynch’s films, I couldn’t make that distinction, but if Eraserhead is anything to go by, I can see why people were saying that.

  10. ruth says:

    “Creepy but mesmerizing” Ahah, well I always think that about David Lynch’s work. I’ve only seen some episodes of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet from him, but this one sounds sooo extremely bizarre. I don’t know if I can handle it, ahah.

    • It is very, very bizarre Ruth, there’s no denying that! It’s also quite disgusting and disturbing at times, so I don’t know if that’d be your thing! Ha 🙂 Still, if you fancy testing yourself, then this could be an option, it certainly tested me!

  11. vinnieh says:

    Certainly looks like a film that lingers in the memory. Excellent post man.

  12. I think your interpretation that the film is about fear of commitment — to parenting and marraige — is dead on. I think it’s also about the fear of urban living. Of course, there is no right or wrong way to interpret a work as abstract as this. I agree with those who say you should see Mulholland Dr. next. That’s his masterpiece.

    Incidentally, I met Lynch in 1992 when I was 17. You can see a photo and read the story: http://whitecitycinema.com/2010/08/15/david-lynch-walk-with-me/

    • Yep, looking like Mulholland Dr is the next one to see then, that seems to be the general consensus of opinion.

      I can see the whole urban living interpretation thing there as well, it’s quite an industrial setting for the whole film, but like you say, there’s no right or wrong!

      I will definitely give that a read when I get a few moments, thanks for the link! 🙂

  13. Great post, really liked your interprettion. Haven’t seen this one, but I’d recommend Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and Blue Velvet.

  14. Garrett says:

    When I first saw this movie, I honestly had no idea what to think of it. It has taken me some time to accept this film, but I really think it is great. There is so much to talk about and it really leaves its mark on the audience. Excellent review. I do really like your interpretation of the film. If you’re interested in Lynch, you should look into the book “Lynch on Lynch.” It goes pretty in-depth into the meanings and behind-the-scenes stuff of all of his movies.

    • You’re spot on when you say it leaves a mark. I watched it over a week ago now and I’m still thinking about it. Even though I have written an interpretation, I’m still unsure of the whole thing. Thanks for the recommendation on the book; once I’ve watched a few more of his films, I’ll definitely check it out. Sounds like I might need to in order to understand the films a little better.

  15. Sweet post. I somehow have missed Lynch, too, so this review was quite helpful! Hmm. Magical realism? Horror? FUBAR? All of the above! Now I’m curious. Thanks.

    • It is a very curious film, Cindy. But approach with caution, it’s a very strange film. If you don’t mind a bit of strange, however, then give it a go. You might hate it but you might think it’s a twisted masterpiece as quite a few people do.

  16. Frame Rates says:

    Is it one of Lynch’s best? I am not sure if I can choose one really. This, Mulholland, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway are all awesome. Excellent review, I need to check this out again soon!
    I did my undergraduate dissertation on Lynch, so he has a special place in my filmic heart!

    • Well this is still the only Lynch film I’ve seen so I can’t make any kind of judgement on how it stacks up against his other stuff. I’ve got Lost Highway on Blu-ray ready to watch and I think Blue Velvet is on Netlfix so I’ll be checking that out soon. He’s a director I definitely feel I should at least know something about.

  17. Popcorn Nights says:

    Great review Chris. I like your interpretation of it. This is definitely one of the ‘angriest’ feeling Lynch films, and a very confusing one if you’re not willing to take it for what it is. I agree with the recommendations above – Blue Velvet is probably my personal favourite, but I’d also add that Wild At Heart is worth a watch, as is The Straight Story (his most ‘normal’ film to date).

    • Popcorn Nights says:

      Just looking at a list of Lynch’s films on Wikipedia…one that I haven’t seen is The Elephant Man, which got 8 Oscar nominations! Probably ought to get hold of a copy!

    • Thanks mate. I’m glad that Eraserhead seems to be in a class of its own, I’m not sure I could take watching the rest of Lynch’s films if they are all like that. And cheers for the heads up on Wild at Heart and Straight Story, I don’t think anyone has mentioned those yet.

  18. Mark Walker says:

    What a trip, man! Lynch is one of my top three directors but I have to admit that I couldn’t really get into Eraserhead. It was years ago I seen it, though, so I’d have to give it another go. I think I was 15 or something when I watched it. Didn’t have a clue what was going on in my own life, never mind dissecting Lynch.

    • Definitely a trip, no doubt about that! There is a huge amount of love for Lynch, so it was about time I checked him out. I can’t imagine watching this being 15, I think it would have scarred me for life! It’d be interesting to know what you thought coming back to it now though.

  19. As Keanu Reeves would say Woah!

    I have not seen this yet but this looks trippy as hell.

  20. Nostra says:

    Have never seen it, but I am not a fan of his work, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out.

  21. dan herron says:

    I am a DL fan and I saw Eraserhead many years ago and am totally on-board with “I don’t know if I liked it or not”. I listen to “The Film Vault” podcast (Bryan & Anderson) where Anderson “assigned” Eraserhead to Bryan to watch. I started thinking about it and I’ll have to see it again myself now.

    I got the soundtrack for Eraserhead a long time ago. Very industrial, disturbing, yet soothing at the same time. It’s hard to describe, much like the movie itself.

    What I remember most about the movie is not the movie itself, but a comment that someone made to me when discussing it. I asked the person if they have ever seen Eraserhead. He said “Shit… you have to be really secure to watch that movie.” I knew exactly what he was talking about and laughed. It’s very true.

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