A print factory worker who is taking an extended vacation, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is in some kind of dream state. He sees himself floating above a planet, and on its surface is a ruined house wherein sits a man (Jack Fisk) all ready to pull the levers in front of him to start things. A spermlike worm emerges from Henry's mouth, falls to a pool on the ground and the man in the planet yanks on the levers... Now Henry is walking home through the grim city that dwarfs him, accidentally stepping in a puddle that soaks his foot; when he gets back to his dingy apartment the woman across the hall (Judith Anna Roberts) has a message. His girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) called and has invited him over to meet her parents, but Henry would be advised not to go...
There are those who dismiss the auteur theory, saying that when so many people work on a film there can be no single author, but Eraserhead defies such criticism, obviously stemming from one man's mind and experience. That man was David Lynch, surely the most famous (if that's not a contradiction in terms) of cult directors, and after making short films he gained funding from the American Film Institute to make this, his first feature length opus. Shot mostly at night, the film took around five years to complete, and when it was released word of mouth spread about it that made it plain that this was something truly original, a mixture of surreallism, black humour and horror that refused to explain itself.
Henry is not a likeable character, but it's possible to feel sympathy for him when we see the predicament he gets himself into. Or perhaps not so much sympathy for him as cringing with embarrassment with him when he visits Mary's parents. If you've ever been in a supposedly polite social situation that grows ever more awkward you'll know what Henry is feeling, as the parents quiz him, offer him dinner and lead up to the big question. Henry hasn't seen Mary for a while and he soon finds out why, but not before the meal goes wrong with the small, "man made" chickens bubbling goo when Henry goes to carve them, and Mary's mother having some sort of fit. It's like a twisted sitcom pilot.
The big question is, what are you going to do about the baby, Henry? Yes, Mary has been pregnant, but the infant is born premature - "They're not even sure it is a baby!" bleats Mary - and now Henry must face up to responsibilities that have been forced on him. If Eraserhead is about anything, it's about the stress of failing in responsibilities that seem impossible to manage, and after a hasty marriage, Henry and Mary have to share his cramped apartment with the constantly crying baby, which resembles a foal's foetus wrapped in bandages. This is too much for Mary, and in the middle of the night she walks out, leaving Henry on his own so she can get a night's sleep.
If the nightmares weren't invading Henry's life before, they certainly are now, and any plot logic is airily let go to concentrate on the weirdness. Henry has visions of a huge-cheeked lady in his radiator who dances to organ music and sings "In Heaven Everything Is Fine". After Mary walks out again, he then has a brief fling with the woman across the hall which manifests itself as them both embracing in a deep, cloudy pool in the middle of the bed. Then, as the baby contracts an illness, he has visions of his own head popping off and turned into pencil erasers - hence the name. The film has a tone more of disgust and despair than frustration, revulsion at sex and disease, despondency at the inability to make productive connections, and if you don't enjoy the film you'll never forget the sustained brilliance of its imagery and oppressive, overwhelming sound design. One thing's for sure, Eraserhead comes from a dark place.
One-of-a-kind American writer-director and artist. His low budget debut Eraserhead set the trends for his work: surreal, unnerving but with a unique sense of humour. After Mel Brooks offered him The Elephant Man, Dino De Laurentiis gave Lynch Dune to direct, but it was an unhappy experience for him.
Luckily, despite the failure of Dune, De Laurentiis was prepared to produce Lynch's script for Blue Velvet, which has since become regarded as a classic. He moved into television with Twin Peaks and On the Air, but it was with film that he was most comfortable: Cannes winner Wild at Heart, prequel/sequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, plot-twisting Lost Highway, the out of character but sweet-natured The Straight Story, the mysterious Mulholland Drive and the rambling, willfully obscure Inland Empire. His return to directing after a long gap with the revival of Twin Peaks on television was regarded as a triumph.