David Lynch’s 1977 debut feature, 'Eraserhead,' is both a lasting cult sensation and a work of extraordinary craft and beauty. With its mesmerizing black-and-white photography by Frederick Elmes, evocative sound design, and unforgettably enigmatic performance by Jack Nance, this visionary nocturnal odyssey remains one of American cinema's darkest dreams.
Portions of this article first appeared in our reviews of import Blu-ray copies of 'Eraserhead'.
Portions of this article first appeared in our reviews of import Blu-ray copies of 'Eraserhead'.
"In heaven, everything is fine."
Unlike many filmmakers, David Lynch didn't grow up wanting to make movies. He studied to be an artist, and only stumbled onto film as a medium in which to make his artwork move. His first short subject, 'Six Men Getting Sick', was essentially an animated painting that depicted the title event in a repeat loop. He described it as, "Fifty seven seconds of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit." Clearly, Lynch did not have conventional ideas for what movies should be. Nonetheless, he found film to be a medium of expression that suited his peculiar talents. He secured a grant to study at the American Film Institute, where he made other shorts and began his first feature-length work, 'Eraserhead'. Due to a combination of the director's inexperience, naivety, perfectionism and a lack of steady funding, production of the film turned into a lengthy affair that lasted five years, often with as little as one shot completed per night. It was a learning experience, to be sure.
'Eraserhead' could very fairly be described as a student film. It has all the hallmarks of a young, precocious (and pretentious) filmmaker who'd been granted free reign to experiment and explore whatever ideas he wanted without a committee of producers standing over his shoulder. Yet, unlike most student films, it's also a very polished, fully-formed and wholly unique expression of its creator's voice as an artist. This isn't just some young film student's derivative riff on his favorite movies. 'Eraserhead' is, more or less, the darkest contents of David Lynch's subconscious mind poured out onto the canvas of a movie screen.
The basic narrative (and the film's skeleton of narrative is quite basic indeed) concerns a dysfunctional weirdo named Henry, who has a 'Bride of Frankenstein' tower of hair, an ill-fitting suit, and not much joy in his life. Henry lives in an industrial dystopian cityscape of smoke, shadows, rusted pipes, sporadic jets of steam and an ever-present rumbling in the distance. His apartment window opens onto a splendid view of a brick wall. His most prized possession is a mysterious seed that he receives in the mail and places in a mound of dirt near his bedside.
Henry seems to have fathered a… child, I suppose you could call it… with his girlfriend Mary, though he doesn't understand how she could have given birth so quickly. "They're still not sure it is a baby," Mary exclaims. The offspring they've spawned is a monstrous creation. The creature effect is so convincing and so disturbing that Lynch still refuses to discuss how he achieved it. Its constant wailing and squealing eventually drive the mother to abandon it and Henry, upon which the story turns… well, even darker and stranger.
'Eraserhead' is a work of Surrealist art that captures the palpable textures of a nightmare better than just about any other ever put to screen. Lynch calls it "a dream of dark and troubling things." Events seem to move from one feverish hallucination to the next, while the character is bombarded by haunting imagery and sounds. It's a unique film, bizarre beyond words, yet also darkly comical. Lynch's portrait of Mary's nuclear family – comprised of its lecherous mother, daft father and catatonic grandmother sitting in the kitchen – is particularly amusing.
Some of the symbolism in the film is easily interpreted, and others less so. The overriding themes of the story have to do with emotional disenfranchisement, the breakdown of the family unit, and terrors of fatherhood. The opening sequence clearly represents Henry's fear of sexuality and conception. That Lynch was himself a first-time father with a failing marriage at the time of the film's production could hardly be coincidental. Though he's denied over the years that the picture is autobiographical, it very much seems to be a case of an artist working out his deepest anxieties through his art.
Other dream imagery, including the title sequence in a pencil factory, is less easily deciphered, even after multiple viewings. Perhaps no one other than David Lynch will ever fully understand everything that happens in the movie, if even he does, or cares to. Lynch works on an intuitive level, and isn't much concerned with details of narrative coherency. He also has a policy of never explaining what anything means in his work. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this might come across as pretentious, but Lynch is such a skilled craftsman that his best films make emotional sense even when their events don't make rational sense.
'Eraserhead' contains the building blocks for much of David Lynch's career. Imagery that appears here for the first time that would recur in his later works include: a curtained room, a zig-zag floor, barking dogs, a scary worm, a woman who steps out of the shadows into a pool of light, an ingénue performing on stage, flickering lights, electrical sparks, and the embrace of the white light of Heaven. Of course, star Jack Nance would also be an invaluable supporting player in many of Lynch's films. Behind-the-scenes, cinematography was handled by Frederick Elmes (who would later do the same for 'Blue Velvet' and 'Wild at Heart'), and Lynch's friend Catherine Coulson (the 'Twin Peaks' Log Lady) performed a variety of miscellaneous tasks, including financing the film with her waitressing tips, to keep the production afloat.
Although I have never set out to intentionally memorize the movie, upon rewatching 'Eraserhead' again, I found that I knew it practically frame-by-frame and could recite every line of dialogue. Some movies have the ability to worm their way into your consciousness like that. This is a rare power for an artist to have over his audience.
A number of years back, the Criterion Collection planned to release 'Eraserhead' on DVD. Unfortunately, those plans fell through due to a dispute between the filmmaker and the company. Eventually, David Lynch self-distributed the film on DVD through his own Absurda label. More recently, the movie appeared on Blu-ray in a few international territories, including Australia, Germany, the UK and Japan – each from a separate distributor but all under license from European studio MK2. For the new American Blu-ray, Lynch and Criterion have finally worked out their differences. The disc arrives as Criterion spine #752.
The single-disc edition is housed in a digipak, which sits alongside a 63-page booklet inside a slipcover. Undoubtedly at the insistence of David Lynch, the disc has neither a Scenes Selection menu nor chapter stops of any kind. Ever since the advent of movies on videodisc, Lynch has expounded that he hates the idea of dissecting a film into pieces and wishes to force viewers to watch his movies from beginning to end every time. That's probably the least nutty of all the many nutty things the director has said over the years, but it's a real nuisance for those of us who wish to study a film as a piece of art.
David Lynch is very protective of 'Eraserhead' and has maintained strict artistic control over the film for many years. The foreign Blu-rays released in 2012 claimed to be "newly remastered by David Lynch himself." Likewise, the booklet included with the Criterion Blu-ray states: "Supervised by director David Lynch, this new digital transfer was created in 4k resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the original camera negative." Naturally, my assumption was that Criterion would use the existing recent Lynch-approved master (the word "new" being a relative term), which looked very good – arguably even better than the original theatrical prints ever did. As far as I'm aware, Criterion does not have its own 4k film scanner. Every other Blu-ray from the label, including very recent releases, that Criterion scanned itself (as opposed to licensing a master from the film's owner) has been done at 2k resolution.
However, a close inspection shows that Criterion's disc has small but noticeable differences in framing and image geometry that point to it being a different film scan from the imports. The two transfers also have other differences in picture quality.
That's not to say that the movie will ever be sparkly eye candy. 'Eraserhead' is a dark movie, very dark, that was produced for basically no money and photographed on scraps of film stock left over from other productions. The 1.85:1 black-and-white image is incredibly contrasty. Most scenes are lit with important objects in the frame illuminated and everything else falling off steeply to black. The 35mm print I saw in the mid-1990s was impenetrably dim, enough so that I couldn't tell what was happening on screen in many scenes.
To compensate for that, most video releases (including the foreign Blu-rays) have pushed the brightness, which of course has a side effect of elevating the black levels to more or less a dark gray. Criterion's new 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is slightly darker than that. While shadow detail is still far more discernible than the theatrical print I saw, I found myself straining to make it out more than I did on the import Blu-rays. The upside to this is that the darker image hides some photographic flaws that were never intended to be seen, such as the strobing and obvious composite matte lines during the opening titles sequence, which were painfully evident on the prior Blu-rays. Later scenes with heavy washes of grain also look more natural and controlled. Regardless, this disc will likely be a challenge for high-definition TVs and projectors that have poor contrast performance, or any uncalibrated display.
The photography for 'Eraserhead' is not exceptionally sharp. Nonetheless, the Blu-ray has a nice representation of fine detail like skin pores and hair. The transfer is very revealing of some production flaws, such as the strings holding the sperm puppets or the squirrel-cheeked Lady in the Radiator's amateurish make-up. I consider that level of transparency to be a good thing.
The foreign Blu-rays had already performed an extensive amount of clean-up work to remove dirt and scratches. In at least a couple of scenes, I noticed that Criterion has cleared away some remaining blemishes. Yet no obvious digital processing artifacts such as sharpening or Digital Noise Reduction stand out. It's a very film-like image. While the different Blu-rays look very similar overall, I think Criterion has a slight edge and may be, thus far, the definitive presentation for the movie.
Update: Since reviewing this Blu-ray, it has been brought to my attention that the Criterion transfer appears to be missing a film element during the scene where Henry meets the Lady in the Radiator at approximately 65 minutes into the movie. In the original version of the film (as it appears on the DVD edition and the foreign Blu-rays), the scene fades to white when Henry touches the Lady, cuts to a pure white frame for a couple seconds, cuts back to a shot of Henry, cuts once again to a pure white frame, and finally cuts to the Lady. On the Criterion disc, the scene starts to brighten when Henry touches the lady (which appears to be a lighting effect rather than an optical fade), but cuts to black and holds on black until eventually cutting to the Lady, even though the sound effects that correspond to the different shots are still on the soundtrack. The disc is missing the pure white frame, the cutaway to Henry, and the second pure white frame. Fortunately, this error goes by very quickly, and I don't feel that it ruins the scene, but it's a disappointment in an otherwise excellent Blu-ray.
Update 2: Criterion has corrected this flaw in the transfer and re-pressed the disc. Corrected copies will say "Second Printing" in the text around the edge of the disc face. (Unfortunately, the packaging gives no indication without getting to the disc inside.) If you have the old copy, contact [email protected] to request a disc exchange.
During its original release in the late 1970s and early '80s, the movie's original sound mix was monaural. For a theatrical re-release in 1994, Lynch and his sound designer Alan Splet remixed the movie into stereo (using the original 1976 monaural mix stems, Criterion's booklet tells us). The track was sweetened again for DVD in 2003 to remove analog tape hiss and extend the dynamic range. David Lynch is fanatical about the sound in his movies, and performed the remastering himself in his own studio.
The Blu-ray contains only the latest stereo mix for the soundtrack, encoded in uncompressed PCM 2.0 format. Criterion claims that: "Additional digital restoration was performed in 2014, using Pro Tools HD, to manually remove any sounds not intended to be part of the original soundtrack." Honestly, I couldn't discern any specific differences in sound quality from the import Blu-rays released two years ago. Whatever Lynch did this time, it must have been mostly minor tweaking.
Despite all the digital clean-up and adjustment, the soundtrack never feels artificially processed. The flavor of the original sound design has not been lost. This is still a weird, unnerving aural soundscape, filled with omnipresent hissing steam in the background and surreal, heightened sound effects throughout. The film's sound design is a fascinating experiment in unsettling ambient noises. Careful attention was given to the subtle distinction in aural texture between one location and the next. The track truly benefits from being turned up loud to highlight those nuances.
Dynamics may be limited, and some of the sound elements (especially the dialogue at times) may suffer strained fidelity. However, on the whole, the audio is sharp and clear, with good clarity and detail in individual sounds.
Many of the bonus features on Criterion's disc have appeared on DVD or Blu-ray before, though not necessarily paired up with 'Eraserhead'. The short films, for example, were previously released in their own compendium DVD collection, along with one more not found here. However, Criterion has taken the additional step of remastering the shorts into high definition for the first time. All shorts are accompanied by video introductions (from the DVD) by David Lynch, which were shot in standard definition.
Any other items that I've seen previously elsewhere will go in this section, while those released for the first time will go in the "HD Bonus Content" section below.
Although David Lynch seems to be very open to describing in detail his early years as a filmmaker and the circumstances of the 'Eraserhead' production, one area he (nor anyone else) never broaches is any analysis of the movie's symbolism or meaning. Lynch doesn't talk about such things, ever. He prefers that each viewer form his or her own interpretation.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The following items appear for the first time (to my knowledge) on the Criterion Blu-ray.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
The original 'Short Films of David Lynch' DVD included one additional film that has not been carried over here (perhaps due to rights issues?). Thankfully, it was the worst piece in that collection. His 1987 'The Cowboy and the Frenchman' was Lynch's first foray into outright comedy, and it was a dismal, unfunny failure. At 35 minutes, the joke (which an apologist might claim was an examination of cultural clichés and stereotypes) dragged on for at least 30 too many. It felt endless. Still, it was interesting from the perspective of watching a talented filmmaker fail.
Also missing from the Blu-ray is brief footage from a deleted scene involving a dead cat carcass. This clip was repeated in a loop for the original 'Eraserhead' DVD's main menu. As much as Lynch may be fascinated with dead things, it was kind of tasteless.
David Lynch's first feature film, 'Eraserhead', can at least arguably be called the director's first masterpiece. The movie will not be to every viewer's liking, but for those on Lynch's wavelength, the surreal nightmare has a way of burrowing into your consciousness.
In the two years since I last watched the movie, I've had a couple children of my own, and I have to say that portions of 'Eraserhead' now play like a straight-up documentary about the traumas of first-time parenthood. I swear that I had a few nights where my sons drove me right to the edge of my sanity and then, just as I hit the breaking point, stopped and laughed derisively at me exactly like the baby in the movie does to Henry. For my money, David Lynch captured that experience better than anyone else ever has.
Criterion's Blu-ray features a brand-new video transfer that's the best the film has ever looked, and offers a decent selection of supplements, including a few fascinating new items. If you're a Lynch fan, this is the copy to own.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.