Saturday At The Movies: Eraserhead

Jack Nance as Henry Spencer

I love horror films, but there are a few that have worked their way into the recess of my mind and made a permanent home for themselves. One such film was Eraserhead, a 1977 black and white film which went past the definition of surreal. Eraserhead was written, produced and directed by filmmaker David Lynch, who would later go on to direct such movies as The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. This dark and brooding film may have been inspired by Lynch’s fear of fatherhood, his daughter’s extensive surgery for her severely clubbed feet and his five years of living in a troubled neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Hmmm… thought provoking since I was born and raised in Philadelphia and I love horror stories.  More about David Lynch’s Eraserhead after the jump.

David Lynch

The filming of Eraserhead began in 1971, but because of Lynch’s meticulous direction, this film remained in production for a number of years and was kept alive not only by regular donations from Lynch’s childhood friend, Jack Fisk and Fisk’s wife Sissy Spacek, but by investments made by cast members.

The Cast

Jack Nance played Henry Spencer, Charlotte Stewart played Mary X , Jeanne Bates played Mary’s mother, Allen Joseph played her father and Judith Anna Roberts plays the beautiful neighbor across the hall. Jack Fisk was The Man in the Planet and Laurel Near was The Lady in the Radiator.

I’ll explain the plot from my point of view, but in the end, anyone watching this film will have their own opinions of its concept and message.

The Plot

The movie starts with the man inside a planet pulling and pushing gears, while sperm like creatures swim in the background. We then see Henry as he makes his way through an industrial cityscape. The scene is dark, noisy, threatening and sets the mood for the entire film. When Henry reaches his apartment, his beautiful neighbor tells him that his girlfriend left a message for him to come to her house for dinner.

Henry arrives at Mary’s house and meets her family, who are not your classic Norman Rockwell family… no, they’re more like the Addams family, very strange. The family behaves in a lifeless manner bordering on robotic at times.

The father asks Henry to carve the roasted chicken that is placed on the table, but the chicken begins to move as Henry cuts into the meat. Reminds me of my first Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey was a little underdone, but luckily no one got sick. Henry learns that Mary had his child and now he is forced to take her and the baby back to his dirty and dark apartment.


The Baby

Something is very wrong with the child and Henry is not happy with either Mary or the deformed baby. The baby has a snakelike head and all it does is cry. It refuses to eat which upsets Mary.

Henry on the other hand is distracted by the desire to have an affair with his beautiful neighbor and by his visions of The Lady in the Radiator.

Henry eventually does have a sexual encounter with the neighbor, but the baby frightens her during her visit. Mary runs away and Henry must care for the child. At this point Henry has a dream that his head falls off and a young boy finds the head and brings it to the factory where they use parts of the brain to make erasers for pencils.

Henry unable to stop the child from crying takes a pair of scissors and cuts open its swaddling cloth. I can’t describe what’s inside; you’ll need to see the film. Henry stabs the child and as the child dies, its head begins to grow until it turns into the planet seen at the beginning of the film. The Man in the Planet struggles to work his levers as the planet bursts apart. The show ends with Henry being embraced by the Lady in the Radiator.

Laurel Near as Lady in Radiator

My Thoughts

This film, which was loaded with surreal and sexual themes, gives warning of the ills experienced in an industrial society. Did this landscape inspire David Lynch’s making of Eraserhead? Can industrial wastes cause deformities? Philadelphia is a beautiful city, but it was also home to a lot of industry.

In 2004, this film was preserved in the National Film Registry and maintained by the United States Library of Congress.

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