Bucket List Movie #461: Eraserhead (1977)
Welcome to another Horror-tober edition of Bucket List Movies, and today we've got the unabashedly twisted star-making debut of everyone's favorite weirdo director.
No, not Tim Burton. Burton is a talented director, but he wishes he could be as weird as the director of today's BLM, David Lynch. That wild-haired dabbler in the avant garde, who is planning to resurrect his legendary TV series Twin Peaks in 2016, Lynch's schtick tends to be walking the fine line between familiar plot settings, and surrealistic twists, turns, and random events that will more often than not make you scratch you head and mutter, "what the f***?!" Lynch loves to infuse the conventional with the utterly bizarre, always catching the viewer off guard. Viewing his stuff is like biting into a cinnamon roll and having it taste like ketchup. Twin Peaks is, at its surface, your typical police procedural with an ongoing arc, but throw in elements like the Log Lady, backwards-talking dream dwarves, monosyllabic giants, and a charmingly dorky special agent who won't shut the hell up about coffee and cherry pie (anyone else think Dale Cooper was the precursor to Fox Mulder? I do), and you'd have to admit that Twin Peaks is anything but familiar and conventional.
Lynch has branched into more linear storytelling, where his affection for outcasts and oddballs is the most evident. The Elephant Man (a BLM I plan to review very, very soon) told the story of John Merrick, who rose above his disfigurement to win the respect of society. The Straight Story related the true tale of how elderly Alvin Straight drove hundreds of miles on his lawnmower to visit his sick brother. Lynch may be eccentric, but you can't accuse him of being heartless.
But today's film is the Lynchiest Lynch that ever Lynched: Eraserhead, his auspicious 1977 debut. It's not going to be easy summarizing this bad boy, because it's one of the most surreal, gross, downright strange movies I've ever seen. I like to think the film resembles the visions Fritz Lang would have had if he'd licked a bunch of toads. The opening alone defies description.
Is there a plot to Eraserhead? Er, kind of? Our titular character (never once called "Eraserhead" in the movie) is Henry Spencer (John Nance), an ordinary guy with a glum face, nervous eyes, and a unique head of hair. Imagine if Kid from Kid 'n Play met up with Barton Fink. Henry works at some white collar job, where he's "on vacation", and one of the earliest scenes in the movie involves him going to his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart)'s house for dinner to meet her folks.
Sounds unremarkable so far, but, remember, this is a David Lynch film. Mary's mother, Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates) grills Henry as the family dog is being suckled by her puppies in the corner. Dinner involves Mrs. X going into hysterics during grace, and when Henry tries to cut his cornish game hen (or whatever it is), it bleeds. When Mrs. X reveals that Mary is pregnant, Henry is forced to marry her. If nothing else, things proceed quickly in Eraserhead.
Tiresome Trivia for the Day: Little House on the Prairie fans will recognize Charlotte Stewart, who played Miss Beadle. Kind of an interesting career transition, no? I also felt like mentioning that Stewart looks for all the world like a young Julie Harris.
Cut to a scene or two later, and Mary is attempting to feed their new bundle of joy. Expecting a cooing baby? Think again. It's some reptilian alien thing whose appearance is never, ever addressed, and the fact that it makes the same noises as a human baby makes it all the more disconcerting. When Henry and Mary argue and she leaves, that's when the freaky stuff really starts happening. Henry dreams (why a film this kooky even needs a dream sequence is anyone's guess) he is being seduced by a cabaret singer with a bad case of mumps, his baby alien is sick with some kind of pox, and, finally weary of the crying, Henry attempts to kill the baby, which grows into a giant lizard and beheads Henry, who is reborn (or wakes up, or something)...
More Tiresome Trivia: It's been a subject of debate of what the baby puppet is made of. According to Wikipedia:
The physical effects used to create the deformed child have been kept secret. The projectionist who worked on the film's dailies was blindfolded by Lynch to avoid revealing the prop's nature, and he has refused to discuss the effects in subsequent interviews. The prop—which Nance had nicknamed "Spike"—featured several working parts; its neck, eyes and mouth were capable of independent operation. Lynch has offered cryptic comments on the prop, at times stating that "it was born nearby" or "maybe it was found". It has been speculated by The Guardian's John Patterson that the prop may have been constructed from a skinned rabbit or a lamb's fetus. The child has been seen as a precursor to elements of other Lynch films, such as John Merrick's make-up in 1980s The Elephant Man and the sandworms of 1984's Dune. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eraserhead)
Yeesh. I think it's safe to say that either the truth is incredibly dull and disappointing, or that we wouldn't really want to learn what it was if we could.
"Surreal" is another one of those words that is carelessly thrown around, but that's exactly what Eraserhead is. There is a lot of strange imagery and dream logic, and like a dream, some of it will stay with you, but a lot of it won't, because you won't believe what you just saw. You've all woken up from dreams that were vivid, but once you were awake, the memory of it vaporizes instantly. Eraserhead is like that, but it is an immensely admirable film, because you can tell Lynch made it just for himself, and the hell with what anyone else thought about it. I think that takes a certain amount of guts, to just make the movie you want to make, follow your own gut and vision, and let the chips fall where they may. There are plenty of success stories of directors who dared to go the distance and improved cinema as a result (you also get stories about people like Tommy Wiseau and The Room, but you take the bad with the good).
Eraserhead is often seen as a metaphor on adulthood, and it's easy to see why: the nondescript job you never thought you'd end up doing, the less fun side of marriage, and, most of all, how babies can be seen as alien parasites that just take and take and keep you up all night. Whether or not this was Lynch's intent is hard to say. Still, Eraserhead, is great to watch on Halloween, a fascinating natural high of a flick. You really don't need drugs, just watch it with some damn fine coffee and cherry pie!