Bunuel and Freud on acid?
"You really are sick!"
It's the line that begins one of the most stomach-churning scenes in Eraserhead, and it's also how many folks who saw the movie in 1977 regarded then-unknown writer-director David Lynch: as a really disturbed individual.
Not much later, Lynch became famous, for films like The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet and the TV series Twin Peaks, and the products of his twisted imagination became popular. But never did he do anything more unsettling and outrageous than his first feature.
In Eraserhead, Lynch's brilliant sickness has no slick veneer. It's as raw and visceral as any film ever made. At the same time its psychology is deeply probing. Imagine Luis Bunuel and Sigmund Freud shooting an indie film on acid, and you're getting close--but are still not yet in Lynchland.
A relentlessly oppressive nightmare, Eraserhead is the beyond-surreal saga of Henry (John Nance), whose big head of hair looks electrified and whose life is endless shock treatment for anxiety. For Henry, quotidian routines hold unspeakable horrors. Dinner at his girlfriend's parents' house upsets every social convention; checking the mail is a ritual of dread; the hissing radiator contains a bizarre vaudeville show; a mucky industrial wasteland impedes every step; and unseen machinery constantly pounds in his ears.
The action is ennui and anxiety; the setting is rock, ooze, dirt, steam, hair, filth, and reptilian forms; the plot is a Rorschach test. Lynch admitted his film was based on his fear of becoming a father, and never has parental dread taken a more nauseating form. What's falling onto the stage when the Lady in the Radiator is performing? What is Henry pulling out of his wife's body in bed? These things sure look sperm-like.
On my first viewing in more than thirty years, knowing what to expect, I found myself far more amused than horrified. If your mind tilts that way, you can take Eraserhead as uproarious satire, with its frontal assault on normality. Remember General Jack Ripper's anxiety in
Dr. Strangelove about pollution of our "precious bodily fluids?" Well, here those fluids are spilling all over the place.
The film's unique cosmology is very "me generation": the universe is contained inside your head. So go ahead, blow your mind. Be amazed at the low-budget special effects that resemble a high school chemistry experiment epic fail yet are scarier than most of today's too-perfect CGI. It's a riveting experience, though in any party of four or more at least one viewer is apt to loathe this cult classic. Weak stomach warning: avoid quail or Cornish hen for dinner that night (or perhaps skip dinner altogether).
One thing is indisputable: Eraserhead will never be shown at Top of the Park. But it is a fittingly pungent entree in the Michigan Theater's "Summer Classics After Dark" series July 11.
[Originally published in July, 2013.]