Eraserhead

Eraserhead by Pascal Wallimann

Eraserhead is a 1977 surrealist body horror film written and directed by American filmmaker David Lynch. Shot in black-and-white, Eraserhead is Lynch’s first feature-length film, coming after several short works.

The film was produced with the assistance of the American Film Institute (AFI) during the director’s time studying there. It tells the story of Henry Spencer who is left to care for his deformed child in a desolate industrial landscape. Throughout the film, Spencer experiences dreams or hallucinations, featuring his child and the Lady in the Radiator.

Eraserhead spent several years in principal photography because of the difficulty of funding the film; donations from Jack Fisk (who plays the Man in the Planet) and his wife Sissy Spacek kept production afloat. Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet spent a year working on the film’s audio after their studio was soundproofed. The soundtrack features organ music by Fats Waller and includes the song ‘In Heaven,’ penned for the film by Peter Ivers. The album has been seen as presaging the dark ambient music genre, and its presentation of background noise and non-musical cues has been described by Pitchfork Media’s Mark Richardson as ‘a sound track (two words) in the literal sense.’

Initially opening to small audiences and little interest, Eraserhead gained popularity over several long runs as a midnight movie. The surrealist imagery and sexual undercurrents have been seen as key thematic elements, and the intricate sound design as its technical highlight. Thematic analysis of the film has also highlighted these issues and has elaborated on Spencer’s fatalism and inactivity.

Writer and director David Lynch had previously studied for a career as an artist, and he had created several short films to animate his paintings. By 1970, however, he had switched his focus to film-making, and at the age of 24 he accepted a scholarship at the American Film Institute’s Centre for Advanced Film Studies. Lynch disliked the course and considered dropping out, but he changed his mind after he was offered the chance to produce a script of his own devising. He was given permission to use the school’s full campus for film sets; he converted the school’s disused stables into a series of sets and lived there. In addition, Greystone Mansion, also owned by the AFI, was used for many scenes.

Lynch had initially begun work on a script titled ‘Gardenback,’ based on his painting of a hunched figure with vegetation growing from its back. It was a surrealist script about adultery, which featured a continually growing insect representing one man’s lust for his neighbor. The script would have resulted in a roughly 45-minute-long film, which the AFI felt was too long for such a figurative, nonlinear script. In its place, Lynch presented ‘Eraserhead,’ which he had developed based on a daydream of a man’s head being taken to a pencil factory by a small boy. Several board members at the AFI were still opposed to producing such a surrealist work, but they were persuaded when dean Frank Daniel threatened to resign if it was vetoed. Lynch’s script was influenced by his reading as a film student, particularly Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella ‘The Metamorphosis’ and Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 short story ‘The Nose.’

The script is also thought to have been inspired by Lynch’s fear of fatherhood; his daughter Jennifer had been born with ‘severely clubbed feet,’ requiring extensive corrective surgery. Jennifer has claimed that her own unexpected conception and birth defects were the basis for the film’s themes. The tone of the film was also shaped by Lynch’s time living in a troubled neighborhood in Philadelphia. Lynch and his family spent five years living in an atmosphere of ‘violence, hate and filth.’ The area was rife with crime, inspiring the bleak urban backdrop of ‘Eraserhead.’ Describing this period of his life, Lynch said ‘I saw so many things in Philadelphia I couldn’t believe … I saw a grown woman grab her breasts and speak like a baby, complaining her nipples hurt. This kind of thing will set you back.’ Film critic Greg Olson, in his book ‘David Lynch: Beautiful Dark,’ posits that this time contrasted starkly with the director’s childhood in a Pacific Northwest suburb, giving the director a ‘bipolar, Heaven-and-Hell vision of America’ which has subsequently shaped his films.

Initial casting for the film began in 1971, and Jack Nance was quickly selected for the lead role. However, the staff at the AFI had underestimated the project’s scale—they had initially green-lit ‘Eraserhead’ after viewing a twenty-one page screenplay, assuming that the film industry’s usual ratio of one minute of film per scripted page would reduce the film to approximately twenty minutes. This misunderstanding, coupled with Lynch’s own meticulous direction, caused the film to remain in production for a number of years. In an extreme example of this labored schedule, one scene in the film begins with Nance’s character opening a door—a full year would pass before he was filmed entering the room. Nance, however, was dedicated to producing the film and retained the unorthodox hairstyle his character sported for the entirety of its gestation.

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 1980’s ‘The Elephant Man’ and the sandworms of 1984’s ‘Dune.’

During production, Lynch began experimenting with a technique of recording dialogue that had been spoken phonetically backwards and reversing the resulting audio. Although the technique was not used in the film, Lynch returned to it for ‘Episode 2,’ the third episode of his 1990 television series ‘Twin Peaks.’ Lynch also began his interest in Transcendental Meditation during the film’s production, adopting a vegetarian diet and giving up smoking and alcohol consumption.

Lynch worked with Alan Splet to design the film’s sound. The pair arranged and fabricated soundproof blanketing to insulate their studio, where they spent almost a year creating and editing the film’s sound effects. The soundtrack is densely layered, including as many as fifteen different sounds played simultaneously using multiple reels. Sounds were created in a variety of ways—for a scene in which a bed slowly dissolves into a pool of liquid, Lynch and Splet inserted a microphone inside a plastic bottle, floated it in a bathtub, and recorded the sound of air blown through the bottle. After being recorded, sounds were further augmented by alterations to their pitch, reverb and frequency.

After a poorly-received test screening, in which Lynch believes he had mixed the soundtrack at too high a volume, the director cut twenty minutes of footage from the film, bringing its length to 89 minutes. Among the cut footage is a scene featuring Coulson as the infant’s midwife, another of a man torturing two women—one again played by Coulson—with a car battery, and one of Spencer toying with a dead cat.

Eraserhead’s sound design has been considered one of its defining elements. Although the film features several hallmark visuals—the deformed infant and the sprawling industrial setting—these are matched by their accompanying sounds, as the ‘incessant mewling’ and ‘evocative aural landscape’ are paired with these respectively. The film features several constant industrial sounds, providing low-level background noise in every scene. This fosters a ‘threatening’ and ‘unnerving’ atmosphere, which has been imitated in works such as David Fincher’s 1995 thriller ‘Seven’ and the Coen brothers’ 1991 dark comedy ‘Barton Fink.’ The constant low-level noise has been perceived by James Wierzbicki in his book ‘Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Cinema’ as perhaps a product of Henry Spencer’s imagination, and the soundtrack has been described as ‘ruthlessly negligent of the difference between dream and reality.’ The film also begins a trend within Lynch’s work of relating diegetic music to dreams, as when the Lady in the Radiator sings ‘In Heaven’ during Spencer’s extended dream sequence. This is also present in ‘Episode 2’ of ‘Twin Peaks,’ in which diegetic music carries over from a character’s dream to his waking thoughts; and in 1986’s ‘Blue Velvet,’ in which a similar focus is given to Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams.’

The film has also been noted for its strong sexual themes. Opening with an image of conception, the film then portrays Henry Spencer as a character who is terrified of, but fascinated by, sex. The recurring images of sperm-like creatures, including the child, are a constant presence during the film’s sex scenes; the apparent ‘girl next door’ appeal of the Lady in the Radiator is abandoned during her musical number as she begins to violently smash Spencer’s sperm creatures and aggressively meets his gaze. David J. Skal, in his book ‘The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror,’ has described the film as ‘depict[ing] human reproduction as a desolate freak show, an occupation fit only for the damned.’ Skal also posits a different characterization of the Lady in the Radiator, casting her as ‘desperately eager for an unseen audience’s approval.’ In his book ‘David Lynch Decoded,’ Mark Allyn Stewart proposes that the Lady in the Radiator is in fact Spencer’s subconscious, a manifestation of his own urge to kill his child, who embraces him after he does so, as if to reassure him that he has done right.

As a character, Spencer has been seen as an everyman figure, his blank expression and plain dress keeping him a simple archetype. Spencer displays a pacifistic and fatalistic inactivity throughout the film, simply allowing events to unfold around him without taking control. This passive behavior culminates in his sole act of instigation at the film’s climax; his apparent act of infanticide is driven by his life of being domineered and controlled. Spencer’s inactivity has also been seen by film critics Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc as a precursor to Lynch’s 1983–92 comic strip ‘The Angriest Dog in the World.’

Upon Eraserhead’s release, ‘Variety’ offered a negative review, calling it ‘a sickening bad-taste exercise.’ The review expressed incredulity over the film’s long gestation and described its finale as unwatchable. Comparing ‘Eraserhead’ to Lynch’s next film ‘The Elephant Man,’ Tom Buckley of ‘The New York Times’ felt that while the latter was a well-made film with an accomplished cast, the former was not. Buckley called ‘Eraserhead’ ‘murkily pretentious,’ and felt that the film’s horror aspects stemmed solely from the appearance of the deformed child rather than from its script or performances. Writing in 1984, Lloyd Rose of ‘The Atlantic’ felt that ‘Eraserhead’ demonstrated that Lynch was ‘one of the most unalloyed surrealists ever to work in the movies.’ Rose described the film as being intensely personal, finding that unlike previous surrealist films, such as Luis Buñuel’s 1929 work ‘Un Chien Andalou’ or 1930’s ‘L’Age d’Or,’ Lynch’s imagery ‘isn’t reaching out to us from his films; we’re sinking into them.’ In a 1993 review for the ‘Chicago Tribune,’ Michael Wilmington described ‘Eraserhead’ as unique, feeling that the film’s ‘intensity’ and ‘nightmare clarity’ were a result of Lynch’s attention to detail in its creation due to his involvement in so many roles during its production.

Following the release of ‘Eraserhead,’ Lynch attempted to find funding for his next project, ‘Ronnie Rocket,’ a film ‘about electricity and a three-foot guy with red hair.’ Lynch met film producer Stuart Cornfeld during this time. Cornfeld had enjoyed Eraserhead and was interested in producing ‘Ronnie Rocket’; he worked for Mel Brooks and Brooksfilms at the time, and when the two realized that ‘Ronnie Rocket’ was unlikely to find sufficient financing, Lynch asked to see some already-written scripts to consider for his next project. Cornfeld found four scripts that he felt would interest Lynch; on hearing the title of ‘The Elephant Man,’ the director decided to make it his second film.

While working on ‘The Elephant Man,’ Lynch met American director Stanley Kubrick, who revealed to Lynch that ‘Eraserhead’ was his favorite film. ‘Eraserhead’ also served as an influence on Kubrick’s 1980 film ‘The Shining’; Kubrick reportedly screened the film for the cast and crew to ‘put them in the mood’ that he wanted the film to achieve. ‘Eraserhead’ is also credited with influencing the 1990 Japanese cyberpunk film ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man,’ the experimental 1990 horror film ‘Begotten,’ and Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 directorial debut ‘Pi.’ Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger cited Eraserhead as ‘one of the greatest films [he had] ever seen,’ and said that it came closer to realizing his vision than even his own films. According to Giger, Lynch declined to collaborate with him on ‘Dune’ because he felt Giger had ‘stolen his ideas.’

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