Welcome to Rewatch Club! In this feature, I will be watching and blogging about each film in an entire franchise or series, starting with the David Lynch filmography in chronological order. BE FOREWARNED! There will be spoilers after a certain point in the blog post. It will be noted in bold text, with an image placed directly after, but this is a direct warning for fast scrollers.
Eraserhead is, on a very basic level, the story of Henry Spencer, a man who lives in a depressing industrial dystopia, trying to cope with his failing relationship with his girlfriend Mary, feelings of lust for the woman who lives across the hall from him, disturbing visions and dreams of a man inside a planet and a woman inside his radiator, and the neverending screams of his premature mutated baby. That’s on a very basic level… This film is messed up, to say the least.
What truly makes Eraserhead worth watching is that it accomplishes so much with so little. There are only a handful of sets, but it feels like a fully realised world. There are only a few actors, but they say and do all they need to in order to carry through a full narrative. The whole film was a tortured production over five years. At one point lead actor Jack Nance ages two years in a scene transition, yet somehow this adds to the unsettling nature of everything going on. Eraserhead oozes atmosphere, and while it is not overtly scary, there is a creeping tension in every scene that makes it very much worth watching.
SPOILER WARNING! After the box art image below, everything can be considered a spoiler for Eraserhead’s narrative and themes!
I’ll be honest, the first time I watched Eraserhead I walked away from it as clueless as when I started. Nothing in it particularly made sense to me, it was just a series of events with no clear meaning. Even now after a second watch, there are elements that leave me confused, but I think I at least have a somewhat firmer grasp on the overall themes. Or at least how I interpret them.
For me, Eraserhead is primarily a film about imprisonment and control. There are other themes at play, including relationships, infidelity, the fear of fatherhood and responsibility, and perhaps even destiny, but they all flow back into the two overarching themes.
At the start of the film, Henry is a man who has little to no control over his life. He lives in a dystopian hellhole (even referred to as such by the father of his girlfriend) and seems to be going nowhere. Over the course of the story, he commits a series of acts designed to take back the control he desires.
Interestingly, the first of these acts is not shown, simply referred to in dialogue. When his girlfriend Mary invites him over to dinner and to meet her parents, her mother asks Henry what he does for a living. He responds that he is currently on vacation from his printing job. While we are not directly shown that Henry was unhappy in his job, it is reflected in the environment around him. The factories and machinery he walks past create an inescapable noise, and spew smoke into the atmosphere.
The second act is taking back some measure of control over his relationship. Henry’s relationship with Mary is shown from the get go to be an unhappy one. His only photograph of her is torn in half. The first time we are introduced to her, she is speaking in a demanding tone to tell him he’s late for dinner, and every conversation they have afterwards is very perfunctory, never addressing their obvious issues. Even when things come to a head, Mary chooses to abandon him completely, rather than letting them face their problems head on.
And how does Henry choose to deal with all of this? It’s simple. Henry cheats on Mary. While in the scene itself, the woman across the hall is portrayed as seducing him, he is shown from the outset as lusting after her. Even in the credits she is only named as Beautiful Girl Across the Hall.
The third act of reclaiming control is the most shocking of all. Henry kills his baby. Throughout the film, it is shown as deformed and sickly. It refuses to eat food, and cries continuously in the nights. When Henry has finally had enough of being driven insane by it, and is sick of feeling imprisoned by parental responsibility to a monster, he cuts open its swaddling bandages to reveal that they are the only thing keeping its organs inside. He then uses the scissors to stab one of the baby’s lungs, killing it.
All of this also ties into the two most enigmatic characters in Eraserhead. The first is the Man in the Planet, a man with deformed skin whose only role is to pull levers. The second is the Lady in the Radiator, a strange woman with large cheekbones who sings a song about how everything is fine in Heaven.
It is my opinion that both of these characters are hallucinations of Henry’s, brought on by his depression over the state of his existence. The Man in the Planet is the personification of his imprisonment. He controls Henry’s fate with the levers, until the end. After Henry has committed his acts of defiance, the levers are shown to be broken, emitting a shower of sparks that seem to hurt the man, symbolising Henry’s ultimate victory in taking control back over his own life.
The Lady in the Radiator, on the other hand, is a comforting figure. The song she sings: “In Heaven, everything is fine / you’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine” represents some form of ideal for Henry. Perhaps an allusion to escaping his tragic life through suicide. This ties into another interpretation of the film, wherein the baby is an extension of Henry himself, and that killing it represents him killing himself. Either way, the ending appears to be a happy one, as Henry embraces the Lady in the Radiator and everything fades to white.
This, of course, is merely my interpretation of events, and does not account for some of the more surreal elements in the film, such as Mary’s strange fits, her paralysed grandmother, the odd deformed chickens that bleed profusely when carved, and what appears to be Henry’s dead baby growing to an enormous size and eating him. The truth is, there is still a lot of this film that eludes me, and I’m not sure I will understand everything, even after upwards of ten or twenty rewatches.
The final thing I will note is this. The film’s title Eraserhead refers to a scene in which Henry has a dream about his decapitated head being turned into pencil erasers. This is what really solidified the interpretation in my mind. Every one of Henry’s acts is an act of destruction. Taking a long vacation (perhaps even quitting) his job, cheating on Mary effectively puts an end to their tortured relationship, and then finally killing the baby. His sole act of creation is shown to be utterly horrifying, resulting in a malformed mutant. By creating erasers from his head, we are shown that the only thing he is truly good at is destroying things.
Of course, it should go without saying that this is merely my opinion of what Eraserhead is about. David Lynch has offered no explanation of his own, and seems happy to never do so, allowing his audience to infer for themselves exactly what everything means. I imagine that everyone who watches will walk away from the film with a different idea. But if there is one thing that can be universally said, it’s that Eraserhead is a startling and often starkly beautiful debut for an exciting visionary, and I am very excited to delve even further into the strange depths of what he has to offer.