skip navigation
Eraserhead

Eraserhead(1977)

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:
Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (0)

DVDs from TCM Shop

Eraserhead A cog in the industrial... MORE > $20.97 Regularly $29.95 Buy Now

Articles

powered by AFI

SEE ALL ARTICLES
teaser Eraserhead (1977)

"Be warned. The nightmare has not gone away..."
Tagline for Eraserhead

David Lynch's 1977 feature directing debut has been called the greatest student film ever made. Started while he was a student at the American Film Institute (AFI), it outgrew its academic origins to consume five years of Lynch's life. Although its nightmare vision seems determinedly non-commercial, the film established Lynch's position as an uncompromising cinematic visionary, leading to such accomplished later works as The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (2001) and the television series Twin Peaks. It continues to maintain a cult following, drawn by its surrealistic images of American life, sexuality and fatherhood.

Eraserhead's plot defies any coherent description. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who inhabits a bleak urban landscape, is forced to meet the parents of girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). After being quizzed repeatedly by Mary's mother (Jeanne Bates) and sharing a dinner of miniature chickens that squirt black goo, he's informed that Mary has given birth prematurely and he must marry her and move her into his apartment. After a few days during which their child cries incessantly, Mary leaves him with the mutant child, leading to a series of bizarre encounters with the prostitute across the hall (Judith Roberts) and a strange woman (Laurel Near) who seems to live in Henry's radiator. Lynch has steadfastly refused to unpack any of the meanings in this, preferring the audience to draw its own conclusions.

The film grew out of a variety of influences. While studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he had lived in one of Philadelphia's poorer neighborhoods, a bleak urban landscape filled with violence that was reflected in the film's world. When he moved to the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles, he read Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, about a man transformed into a giant cockroach, and Nikolai Gogol's story "The Nose," in which a man's nose leaves his face to assume independent life. Both also contributed to the film's vision. In addition, he drew on his own fear of fatherhood, feelings exacerbated when his first child, Jennifer, was born in 1968 with two clubbed feet, requiring surgery. For a final touch, he had a daydream in which a boy brings a severed head to a pencil factory, which became one of Nance's dreams in the film.

With only a 20-page script, Lynch had trouble raising production money. Production designer Jack Fisk, who played the Man in the Planet and had been a friend since childhood, donated some money. He also helped out with filming and his girlfriend and later wife, Sissy Spacek, often held the slate. Other money came from Nance's wife, Catherine E. Coulson, who served as assistant director and would later play the Log Lady on Twin Peaks. Lynch also contributed whatever he could afford from his job delivering newspapers. After three years of working on the film whenever he could manage, he finally scored a small grant from the AFI. Director Terrence Malick tried to secure backing for it, but when one potential investor saw a sample reel, he walked out.

In all, it took Lynch and his crew of six five years to complete the film, shooting whenever he had time and money. Nance had to keep his hair styled for Henry throughout that period. The AFI let him use their grounds for shooting, and he converted their stables into some of the film's sets. He even moved into the stables as filming dragged on. Two years into production cinematographer Herbert Cardwell died suddenly. It took a month to replace him with Frederick Elmes. Once the film was shot, Lynch and Alan Splet then spent a year working on the elaborate, multi-layered soundtrack.

Lynch did the film's effects himself and was as tightlipped about them as he was about the picture's meaning. One of the most astounding elements was the mutant child, which Nance nicknamed "Spike." The prop had several moving parts and at one point gushes fluid. Although he has never confirmed it, critics have speculated that he made Spike from either a skinned rabbit or a lamb fetus. He wouldn't let the projectionist screening the rushes view any scenes with the child, making him don a blindfold. When the picture was finally completed, the crew held a mock wake for the child, and Lynch buried the prop in a secret location.

What resulted from the attenuated production process, was a work of surprising unity and technical accomplishment. Sound designer Alan Splet, who would go on to win the Oscar® for The Black Stallion (1979), created a multi-layered soundtrack combining mechanical sounds with Fats Waller songs. The sound is almost constant during the film, with Splet using as many as 15 different tracks at once. It marries with the stark black and white images captured by Cardwell and Elmes to create a seamless surreal vision of existence.

After a disastrous preview that led to Lynch's cutting 20 minutes from the film (including two characters played by Coulson), Eraserhead premiered at the Filmex festival in Los Angeles, where it was seen by Libra Films' Ben Barenholtz. He convinced a local theatre owner to give it some midnight screenings, where it began developing a cult following. It ran a year at the Cinema Village and then moved to the Nuart for three years of midnight showings. It was also successful in New York and San Francisco. Those showings attracted the attention of other filmmakers, with John Waters trumpeting the film to his own fans at every opportunity. Stanley Kubrick considered it his favorite movie and created the mood he wanted for The Shining (1980) by screening the film for his cast. When George Lucas saw it, he offered Lynch the chance to direct Return of the Jedi (1983), which Lynch turned down. Finally, it caught the attention of Mel Brooks, who was so impressed he hired Lynch to direct his production of The Elephant Man (1980).

Themes from Eraserhead have continued to recur in Lynch's other works, particularly his use of dreamlike imagery. His practice of having songs carry over from dreams into real life -- as he did with "In Heaven," the song written and dubbed by Peter Ivers -- can also be found with Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" in Blue Velvet and in episodes of Twin Peaks. The film's industrial sounds and bleak industrial landscape are echoed in the factories shown in The Elephant Man and the sawmill in Twin Peaks. Deformity is another recurring theme, with the baby in Eraserhead resembling John Merrick's makeup in The Elephant Man. All of this reflects an overarching view of life as absurd, with the blatantly surreal moments in his work contrasted with moments of ordinary activity that usually reflect some deeper meaning underneath.

Lynch was not the only participant to benefit from Eraserhead's fame. The picture would launch Nance's career as a character actor, most notably in such Lynch films as Dune (1984), Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart (1990) and Lost Highway (1997), not to mention Twin Peaks.Stewart and Coulson would also appear on that series, while Roberts followed Eraserhead and other independent films with more commercial fare, most notably the horror film Dead Silence (2007) and the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. Elmes has built a solid career as cinematographer on films and television productions, winning the National Society of Film Critics Award for Blue Velvet and Independent Spirit Awards for Wild at Heart and Night on Earth (1991). Fisk has become one of the screen's leading production designers, with Oscar® nominations for There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Revenant (2015), while Splet was in demand as a sound designer until his premature death in 1994.

The film had a major cultural impact, inspiring an episode of the sitcom Laverne & Shirley, a character in the comedy House Party (1990), jokes on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, an episode of the animated series Samurai Jack and an experimental film made by one of the characters on Gilmore Girls. The soundtrack influenced David Fincher's Seven (1995) and the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink (1991), which also run low-level noise almost throughout. Other films influenced by Eraserhead include Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998). T-shirts and posters displaying Nance and his strange, electrified haircut continue to sell. In 2004, the film was added to the National Film Registry. A 2010 poll conducted by the Online Film Critics Society named Lynch's the second best directorial debut in film history, behind Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941).

Director: David Lynch
Producer: Lynch
Screenplay: Lynch
Cinematography: Herbert Cardwell, Frederick Elmes
Score: Lynch
Cast: Jack Nance (Henry Spencer), Charlotte Stewart (Mary X), Allen Joseph (Mr. X), Jeanne Bates (Mrs. X), Judith Roberts (Beautiful Girl Across the Hall), Laurel Near (Lady in the Radiator), Jack Fisk (Man in the Planet), Jennifer Lynch (Little Girl)

By Frank Miller

back to top