Eraserhead is a surrealist film written, directed, and produced by David Lynch, and released in 1977. In 1971, Lynch moved to Los Angeles to pursue an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) degree at the AFI Conservatory. At the Conservatory, Lynch began working on his first feature-length film, Eraserhead, using a $10,000 grant from the AFI. The grant was not sufficient to complete the film and, as a result, Lynch worked on Eraserhead intermittently until its release in 1977. Lynch used money from friends and family, including boyhood friend Jack Fisk, a production designer and the husband of actress Sissy Spacek, and from odd jobs to finish the film.
The film follows a short period of the life of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a printer on vacation. Henry discovers that his estranged girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), has given birth to a bizarrely deformed baby. He marries her, and, after a tumultuous and brief time living together, Mary leaves Henry who then cares for the ill baby himself. A bizarre sequence of events ensues, including visions of a woman in Henry's radiator dancing and stomping on small tadpole-like creatures, a tryst with the woman across the hall, and a dream sequence in which Henry's head is used to make pencil erasers.
Eraserhead polarized and baffled many critics and movie-goers, but has become a cult classic. In 2004, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Lynch has called it a "dream of dark and troubling things" and his "most spiritual movie."
Eraserhead is set in the heart of an industrial center rife with urban decay. Henry Spencer is a printer who is "on vacation" for the duration of the story. The film begins with the mysteriousMan in the Planet manipulating large mechanical levers while looking out of his window. As he does so, a ghostly flagellate-like creature emerges from the mouth of Henry, floating in space. The creature eventually flies away amidst images of rock formations, a circular opening, and bubbling fluid. In the industrial center, Henry receives a telephone invitation to have dinner with Mary X, his estranged girlfriend, and her family. At Mary's family's home, Henry is puzzled by a series of emotional outbursts by Mary's mother, the banal, disconnected conversation offered by her father, and a miniature roasted chicken he is given to carve, which kicks on his plate and oozes at the fork's touch. The dinner conversation at Mary's house is strained and awkward, after which Henry is cornered by Mary's mother, who attempts to kiss him before telling him that Mary has just had a baby after an abnormally short pregnancy. Henry is then obliged to marry her.
Mary and the baby move into Henry's one-room apartment. The baby is hideously deformed with a large snout-nose with slit nostrils, a pencil-thin neck, eyes on the sides of its head, no ears, and a limbless body covered in bandages. It bears a vague resemblance to the flagellate creature that came out of Henry's mouth at the beginning of the film. The baby refuses to eat and continually whines throughout the night.
A sleep-deprived Mary abandons Henry and the baby (who also turns out to be sick). After Mary leaves, Henry must care for the baby by himself, and he becomes involved in a series of strange events. These include bizarre encounters with the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near); visions of the ominous Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk); and a sexual liaison with his neighbor, the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts). The Lady in the Radiator is a woman with grotesquely distended cheeks who appears in his radiator, first doing a dance routine on a stage in which she shuffles and stomps on sperm or fetus-resembling creatures that fall from above, and then later singing a song that goes "In Heaven, everything is fine/ You've got your good things, and I've got mine" (with subtle variations).
In a dream sequence, Henry’s head pops off and his baby's head comes up from between his shoulders, replacing it. Henry's head sinks into a growing pool of blood on a tile floor, falls from the sky, and, finally, lands on an empty street and cracks open. A young boy finds Henry's broken head and takes it to a pencil factory, where Paul (Darwin Joston), the desk clerk, summons his ill-tempered boss to the front desk by repeatedly pushing a buzzer. The boss, angered by the summons, yells at Paul, but regains his composure when he sees what the little boy has brought. The boss and the boy carry the head to a back room where the Pencil Machine Operator takes a core sample of Henry's brain, assays it, and determines that it is a serviceable material for pencil erasers. The boy is then paid for bringing in Henry's head. The Pencil Machine Operator then sweeps the eraser shavings off of the desk and sends them billowing into the air.
After waking from this dream, Henry looks out his window and sees two men fighting in the street. He then seeks out the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, but discovers that she is not home. The baby begins to cackle mockingly, and, shortly thereafter, Henry opens his door and sees the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall bringing another man back to her apartment. She looks at Henry, momentarily sees Henry's head transform into that of the baby, and appears frightened by her vision. Henry goes back into his apartment, takes a pair of scissors, and cuts open the baby's swaddling, which turn out to be part of its flesh (or simply what is holding all of its organs together). By cutting the swaddling, Henry splits open the baby's body and exposes its vital organs. As the baby screams in pain, Henry stabs one of its organs with the scissors. This action causes the apartment’s electricity to overload, and as the lights flicker on and off, a giant apparition of the baby's head materializes in the apartment. It then becomes a strange planet. Henry is then seen with eraser shavings billowing behind his head. The planet explodes, and through the hole in it we see the Man in the Planet struggling with a series of levers with sparks shooting from them when he pulls them, visibly burning his face. The last scene features Henry being embraced by the Lady in the Radiator. They are bathed in white light, and white noise builds to a crescendo, then stops as the screen goes black, and the credits begin to roll.
Eraserhead developed from Gardenback, a script about adultery that Lynch wrote during his first year at the Centre for Advanced Film Studies at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles. The script for Eraserhead was only 21 pages long. Because of the film's unusual plot and Lynch's minimal directorial experience, no movie studio backed the project. Lynch eventually won a grant from the AFI, and filmed most of it at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, which was at the time the headquarters of the American Film Institute.
Aside from the AFI grant, the movie was financed by friends and family, including actress Sissy Spacek, wife of Lynch's childhood friend Jack Fisk. Because of the lack of reliable funds, Eraserhead was filmed intermittently from 1971 to 1976, with sets disassembled and reassembled several times.
Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a vacationing printer who lives alone in a small apartment. His only forms of entertainment are a record player and a fetish for dirt, plants, and worms. Henry is taciturn, but uses short, emotional outbursts when he does speak.
Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) is Henry's girlfriend, though he has not seen her for some time when the story begins. She lives with her parents and catatonic grandmother until she marries Henry and moves in with him for a short time.
Mr. X (Allen Joseph) and Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates) are Mary's parents. Mr. X is a pipe-fitter who boasts loudly to Henry about his role in plumbing the neighborhood and is seemingly oblivious to the emotional situation surrounding Mary's strange pregnancy and childbirth. Mrs. X, however, experiences frequent outbursts while Henry is visiting their home and eventually demands accountability of Henry.
The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts) lives in the apartment across from Henry's and delivers the telephone message inviting Henry to dinner at Mary X's house at the beginning of the story. She serves as an object of desire for Henry.
The Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) appears to Henry in several visions. She has extremely bloated cheeks and performs song and dance routines on a checkered tile stage. In one such routine, she stomps on small, sperm-like creatures that fall onto her stage while she is dancing.
The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) is seen manipulating mechanical levers while observing Henry through a window at the beginning of the film, appearing to introduce an amphibious being into the world. Later in the film, after Henry kills the baby, the Man in the Planet appears again, this time struggling with the levers.
Release and reaction
Ben Barenholtz, the founder of Libra Films, watched the film a few weeks after its Filmex opening, and before the film was at its midway point, had decided it was a "film of the future". By that summer (1977), Lynch and his wife had arrived in New York and were staying at Barenholtz's apartment; Lynch then spent two months working with a lab to get a print of the film ready for its New York opening. The film opened in fall 1977 at the Cinema Village for a midnight show, and eventually "became a hit on the horror circuit in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London."
A January 1977 review of Eraserhead by Variety called it a "sickening bad-taste exercise" which "pulls out all gory stops in the unwatchable climax....the mind boggles to learn that Lynch labored on this pic for five years."
In a December 2007 review of a new 35mm print, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called it an "amazing, still mysterious work" which "brings together many of the now-familiar Lynchian visual themes and narrative figures, including the naïve man, the slatternly woman, the shabby period furniture, the contorted flesh and forms, the yawning orifices and oozing, leaking fluids."
Entertainment Weekly ranked the film #14 on their list of "The Top 50 Cult Films".
The film currently holds a 90% "Certified Fresh" rating from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 40 reviews.
Reactions from other directors
After seeing the film, Mel Brooks hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man (1980).
Director Stanley Kubrick once stated in an interview with Michel Ciment that he would have liked to direct this film, as it was one of his favorites. Before beginning production on The Shining, Kubrick screened Eraserhead for the cast to put them into the atmosphere he wanted to convey.
George Lucas was a fan of the film and, after seeing it, wanted to hire Lynch to direct Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Lynch declined, fearing it would be more of his own vision rather than Lucas'. The directorial duties eventually went to Richard Marquand.
Lynch has said its protagonist is "living under the influence of those things that existed for me in Philadelphia":
There was a sense of dread pretty much everywhere I went. I didn't live in any good parts of Philadelphia, and so dread was my general feeling. I hated it. And, also, I loved it.
Lynch also wrote a short chapter about the film in his 2006 book Catching the Big Fish. In that book, he wrote "Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is." He went on to write about the difficulties he was having making sense of the way the film was "growing" and didn't know "the thing that just pulled it all together." He then reveals it was the Bible that provided the solution:
So I got out my Bible and I started reading. And one day, I read a sentence. And I closed the Bible, because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent.
Lynch states in the book that he doesn't think he will ever reveal what the vision-fulfilling Biblical verse is.
Until recently, the only way to acquire Eraserhead as a Region 1 (North America) DVD was to purchase it through Lynch's own website. The version of the film on the official Region 1 DVDs was remastered for the medium by Lynch himself.
Customers who ordered the film from Lynch's website received the disc packaged in a special presentation box.Template:Fact The DVD included a deleted scene and a 90-minute documentary about the making of the movie, which consists of Lynch sitting before a microphone, smoking cigarettes, and talking about his memories of making the movie (almost like a director's commentary track, but with video). During the piece he also calls Catherine Coulson and they reminisce together about the making of the film.
On January 10, 2006, Eraserhead was made commercially available by Subversive Cinema. This re-release had normal DVD packaging instead of the large boxset from David Lynch's website, but the content on the disc itself was the same. The UK DVD release is region-free, as is the Korean DVD release.
On October 20 2008 the film was re-released in Region 2 in the UK, alongside a Region 2 release of The Short Films of David Lynch.
Poet Charles Bukowski referenced the film when interviewed on the subject of cable television, Bukowski said, "We got cable TV here, and the first thing we switched on happened to be Eraserhead. I said, 'What’s this?' I didn’t know what it was. It was so great. I said, 'Oh, this cable TV has opened up a whole new world. We’re gonna be sitting in front of this thing for centuries. What next?' So starting with Eraserhead we sit here, click, click, click — nothing."
A number of rock bands take their name from the film: the 1980s London punk rock group Erazerhead; the Northern California band Eraserhead, and The Eraserheads, a rock band from the Philippines. The band Henry Spencer take their name from the main character. Apartment 26 are named after Henry's address and they feature a sample from the Lady in the Radiator's "In Heaven" at the end of their song, "Heaven." The 1980s London indie rock band Henry's Final Dream also owe their name to this movie. Bruce McCulloch from Canadian sketch group, The Kids in the Hall has recorded a song titled (and about) 'Eraserhead' on his album Shame Based Man.
"In Heaven", the song sung by the Lady in the Radiator, has been covered by Bauhaus, Devo, Miranda Sex Garden, Tuxedomoon, Pankow, Pixies, Desolation Yes, Bang Gang, Zola Jesus, Helios, Annie Christian, Donny Who Loved Bowling, Forgotten Sunrise and Fantastic Coprophilia. Indie rockers Modest Mouse borrowed lines from "In Heaven" for "Workin' on Leavin' the Livin'", as did the anarcho-punk band Rubella Ballet for their song "Slant and Slide". The Dead Kennedys reference the film in the song "Too Drunk to Fuck" in the line 'You bawl like the baby in Eraserhead'. An Eraserhead T-Shirt was available from the bands label Alternative Tentacles for some years.
Eraserhead, along with five other low-budget films from the 1960s and 1970s (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pink Flamingos, El Topo, The Harder They Come and Night of the Living Dead), was the subject of a 2005 documentary, Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream. Lynch was interviewed for the documentary.
- Peary, Danny. Cult Movies, Delta Books, 1981. ISBN 0-517-20185-2
- Cinefantastique Barry Gifford Interview from lynchnet.com
- Lynch, David (2006). Catching the Big Fish. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin Group. ISBN 1585425400.
- "The City of Absurdity: David Lynch's Eraserhead". http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/2093/ehabout.html.
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- Distorted, Distorting and All-Too Human, a December 2007 review from The New York Times
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- , Rotten Tomatoes Eraserhead Movie Reviews
- "The Late Late Show, Feb. 26, 1997 - Interview with David Lynch". http://listing-index.ebay.com/movies/Entertainment_Weekly%27s_%22Top_50_Cult_Films_of_All-Time%22.html.
- Ciment, Michel. Kubrick: The Definitive Edition. Faber & Faber, 2003. ISBN 0571211089
- David Lynch interview 1985
- "A Fish in the Percolator". Philadelphia Weekly. 2001-03-14. http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/articles/2740.
- "Eraserhead (Korean Version)". http://www.hkflix.com/xq/asp/filmID.527937/qx/details.htm.
- DVD Times - Eraserhead & David Lynch Short Films (R2) in October from dvdtimes.co.uk
- Eraserhead "Alternative Rock-N-Roll"
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