In the wake of the impending return to Twin Peaks, it is worth looking back at the world’s introduction to David Lynch, the most cult of cult directors. Long before the bovine-based Oscar campaigns, the voice acting for Seth MacFarlane, and the endlessly entertaining twitter account, Lynch was an aspiring painter, struck with the seemingly simple desire to see his paintings move.
Eraserhead, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, sits at an interesting juncture in Lynch’s oeuvre; serving as the perfect bridge between Lynch the painter and Lynch the filmmaker. The film stars future Lynch regular Jack Nance as Henry; a rather meek, nervous man with a seemingly permanent look of bewilderment (which is quite understandable, given the film he’s in). After a painfully awkward dinner with his girlfriend Mary’s parents (chicken has never looked less appetising), Henry learns that he has become a father. What he is a father of, though, remains uncertain. It’s a baby, ostensibly, but as Mary cries, “They’re still not sure it is a baby!” What follows is a nightmarish trip of swollen cheeks, giant sperm, and exploding planets. If watched in combination with Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan (2009), you’ll probably never entertain the idea of having children again.
In the context of his filmography, Eraserhead arguably represents Lynch at his purest, most undiluted form. It’s quite fun in retrospect to spot little details that would reappear in the future (flickering light sources, and a floor design that simply screams Twin Peaks), but ultimately Eraserhead is a unique Lynch work. The horror which generally is only scuttling beneath the surface of his later works (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr.) takes centre stage here, and the metaphorical becomes grotesquely literal. Arguably, the level of outright surrealism present in Eraserhead doesn’t return to the big screen until Inland Empire, almost 30 years later (interestingly, this was not the case for his advertising work, which surely sets a benchmark for commercials at their most, well, uncommercial).
While it is the images of deformity that tend to stick in the mind, the film wouldn’t have been half as effective if it weren’t for the meticulous sound design, courtesy of Lynch and Alan Splet. They spent almost a year fine-tuning the industrial soundscape that permeates the picture, and when watching, it is clear that without these efforts, Eraserhead (and by extension Lynch) would not be in the position it is today. It was perhaps best put by Nathan Lee of the Village Voice; “to see the film means nothing—one must also hear it”. In spite of there being very little in the way of dialogue, the film is almost never silent. The mixture of industrial clangs, grinding drones, and far-off trains creates the overarching sense of dread and unease that Henry is plagued by. Of course, we must not forget the centrepiece song “In Heaven”. Covered by everyone from the Pixies and Devo to Bauhaus and Zola Jesus, it goes some way towards demonstrating the enduring cult appeal of the film (not to mention the number of bands who take their name from it). Listening to it again, perhaps what’s most striking about “In Heaven” now is how easily it would fit into any of Lynch’s recent solo albums (in particular 2013’s The Big Dream).
In the wider context of the midnight movie circuit which helped to propel Lynch to international fame, Eraserhead fits rather snug between the paranoid horror of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the madcap surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). But the appeal of Eraserhead was hardly limited to midnight screenings. None other than Stanley Kubrick described it as his favourite film, and screened it for his actors in preparation for the filming of The Shining. A more direct influence can be felt on the myriad of cult films to follow in its wake; from Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989) to Darren Aronofsky’s π (1998). The squickier aspects came to influence body horror – Alien designer HR Giger in particular (the plethora of subconscious sexual imagery in both films comes to mind).
As with any director with as varied a filmography as Lynch’s, there will always be debate about what is his crowning achievement. While Eraserhead may lack the professional sheen of his later works, its ability to unsettle has far from dulled over its 40 years. It is the quintessential cult film, and will remain a gateway to the underground for many future cinephiles.
Now all together; “In Heaven, everything is fine…”