A disembodied head floats across a field of stars in which is suspended a planet, shadowed, lonely and barren; a lucid dreamer, open-eyed, his name is Henry Spencer, floating into the night on the waves of a nightmare which cannot be escaped and whose images permeate his waking life of mundane domestic repetition.
The controller of dreams sat in the junction box of the subconscious, working the levers of Henry’s mind, he exists in a run-down industrial wasteland, a façade populated by the sounds of engines and mechanisms and the screams of his child, premature and deformed, an organism which cannot be soothed or placated, a half-conceived thought given repellent form.
Bewildering and often disturbing, Eraserhead was released in 1977 after spending most of the preceding years of the decade in an erratic principal photography schedule dependent upon funding from odd jobs and contributions from friends to bolster the grant from the American Film Institute received by artist turned filmmaker David Lynch to create his debut feature.
Shot through the night while cast and crew worked their day jobs to make ends meet, it was a labour of love which built a family, the experience still described by Lynch as the happiest time of his career despite his enormous subsequent success, twice winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive, recipient of an honourary Academy Award and with nine Emmy nominations for Twin Peaks in its many forms.
A fall into an alien landscape which might be the folds of a brain or the gulf between imagination and reality, the monochrome imagery of Eraserhead is startling and has echoed throughout Lynch’s subsequent work, most particularly in Twin Peaks, such as the echo of the embryonic form screamed by Henry in his dream in the ectoplasmic emissions of “the Experiment” which allowed Bob to manifest in New Mexico following the nuclear detonation at Trinity, New Mexico.
A framed photograph of a mushroom cloud visible in Henry’s apartment, in another form Jack Nance would play Pete Martell in Twin Peaks and Charlotte Stewart who plays his wife, Mary X, would appear as Betty Briggs, while Nance’s then-wife Catherine E Coulson who served in a number of roles on the production of Eraserhead from camera loader to caterer would find fame as Margaret Lanterman, the iconic “Log Lady” of the Ghostwood Forest.
Mary’s face framed by the bedstead and the fractured planet images explicitly repeated in Twin Peaks and Dune, the zig-zag flooring of the lobby prefiguring the mysterious Red Room and the woman behind the radiator the first manifestation of the divas of the Roadhouse and Club Silencio, Eraserhead is mesmerising and laden with meaning if only it could be deciphered, Lynch happy to accept that his deeply abstract work opens itself widely to personal interpretations he will not contradict: “It’s not up to me to say.”
Released on Blu-ray by Criterion in a new 4K digital restoration, Eraserhead is supported by a feature documentary, five early short films and numerous interviews filmed between the late seventies and 2014 with Lynch, Nance, Stewart, Coulson and others, revisiting the stables where they created their studio, reminiscing on the circumstances and sharing their delight at the continued recognition of the work for which they sacrificed so much: “I had to keep back-combing Jack’s hair for over four years,” Coulson laughs: “I think that put a strain on the marriage.”
Eraserhead is available on Blu-ray from Criterion now