Eraserhead (Absurda/Subversive DVD) is the scariest movie I've ever seen. Period. I had an anxiety attack in the parking lot walking to my car one bleak, winter's night a few years back trying to comprehend the connection of Henry -- the movie's protagonist -- to my sad, bleak life in Akron, Ohio. With my college graduation looming that spring, I envisioned my own future marriage and "mutant" baby (urban legend claims it was created from an embalmed cow fetus) as quite a possible reality. That really fucked with my mind. No other way to put it when you're uncertain of your reality, that can be the scariest reality of all. According to director David Lynch, the fantasy/horror movie was heavily influenced by his time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in the '60s surrounded by the urban decay of Philadelphia, a place -- he claims in the Q&A documentary portion of the new DVD -- where it was "sunny one day out of the year."
Moreover, his wife was pregnant when he made the film, and some suggest that this was his attempt to deal with impending fatherhood. Uber director Stanley Kubrick believed that Eraserhead was one of the most perfect "cinematic experiences" created. He screened it before beginning production on his horror classic The Shining to get his cast and crew in the mood.
Eraserhead was shot intermittently over the span of five years. Sets were disassembled and reassembled over and over again. Finally it was completed in 1977, premiering in March of that year. It was also partly financed by actress Sissy Spacek. (She was married to Lynch's childhood friend Jack Fisk, who appears in the film as the "Man in the Planet.") And Lynch lived in the same room that functions as the main room in the movie.
Set in some black and white industrial post-apocalyptic wasteland devoid of trees, bushes, flowers, or grass, there is the ever-present din of humming, clanking, hissing, and other non-musical "factory" noises. The terrifying tale focuses on the very isolated and lonely Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a printer who through the course of the film is on vacation. After a very weird dinner with his ex-girlfriend Mary X's (Charlotte Stewart) family, he finds out that has given birth to a bizarre, alien-looking child. She moves in with him -- one-room flat with piles of dirt and branches stuck into them -- and just as quickly moves out, leaving the baby with him.
Henry then has a sexual encounter with his neighbor, the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), who he discovers is a prostitute. Moreover, he also spies on or perhaps dreams about the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near). Radiator Lady has distended cheeks and sings "In Heaven" while squishing giant sperm cells with the heels of her shoes. There is so much psychosexual dream imagery that it could very well be Lynch's own psyche smushed all over the Radiator Lady's stage floor.
In fact, the movie was developed from his script Gardenback, a story about adultery for the AFI (American Film Institute) in LA. He lived and worked in the stables of their sprawling Beverly Hills compound for over four years while meticulously slaving over the project when he had money to buy film stock and pay his crew.
Perhaps there were copious amounts of reefer ingested, too. But who can be sure? Lynch has never discussed the premise nor shared in its obtuse meaning.
Is it Lynch's confession to his own sins? His discourse on sin and the nature of man? Or as Lynch's description reads, just "a dream of dark and troubling things"? After all, Mel Brooks once said that David was "Jimmy Stewart from Mars." Watch it and decide for yourself. You will not easily forget the experience.
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. As a singer/songwriter, he's released 3 solo CDs and one with his folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at William Morris!