I’m sure glad I didn’t see this before I had kids.
David Lynch’s surreal, nightmarish, cinematic panic attack about the prospect of having children – or, more broadly, the threat of domesticity – is expertly crafted, wildly imaginative and deeply, deeply disturbing. And it’s disturbing because it strikes a chord. Yes, there are times when you’re lying awake listening to your infant’s cries and you wonder if you weren’t, in fact, living with some sort of mewling, alien worm baby.
That’s literally what happens to Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), the main character in Eraserhead. Upon meeting his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents for dinner, Jack is informed by Mary’s lascivious mother (Jeanne Bates) that he has impregnated her daughter (fear/guilt over sex also drives the picture’s narrative). Mary eventually gives birth to something that looks like an in utero E.T., and the new family moves into Henry’s cramped, one-bedroom apartment.
Eraserhead is disturbing because it strikes a chord.
In essence, Eraserhead explores social anxiety via jarring imagery. Nervous about dinner with your girlfriend’s parents? What if they asked you to carve the absurdly tiny chicken with an outrageously large knife – and when you did, the thing’s legs started moving as blood spurted from its orifices? Worried you may not be a good parent? What if you dreamt of a nightclub where worm fetuses dropped from the ceiling onto the stage and were stomped on by a disfigured dancer?
It isn’t only the imagery that’s unnerving; Eraserhead also boasts insidiously creative sound design. Whenever Henry walks the streets of his barren, industrial city, there’s a howling in the air, like wind rushing through a cave. Inside his apartment there’s a constant, buggy buzz, which is presumably the hiss of the radiator. In another room we hear what sounds like gnawing rats, only to learn that they’re actually nursing puppies. And then there’s the cry of the worm baby – which eventually becomes a malevolent force, trapping Henry in his room with its incessant needs.
What’s astonishing about Eraserhead, especially given that it’s a debut feature, is the confidence Lynch has in his imagery, no matter how freakish it becomes (and I haven’t come close to sharing the weirdest bits). Whether you find the surrealism overwrought or comical – and it helps that much of it has a sly sense of humor about itself – doesn’t really matter. Lynch’s beautifully bizarre mind is going to churn on anyway.