[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
While an attendant whose deformed face and skin make him look like the Elephant Man pulls levers like those that start an amusement park ride, an ectoplasmic spermatozoon plunges squirming into a pool, making its way toward a globe that gradually crumbles, until we take the viewpoint of that globe and find ourselves sliding through a hair-rimmed aperture into a bright white beyond. Conception and birth, right? But of what?
Every time you think you’ve got hold of Eraserhead, you haven’t. A curly-haired macrocephalic strolls zombielike through a surreal landscape that is both identifiably urban and suggestively a macrophotograph of some portion of human anatomy. Lights come on but don’t light anything up; the bars of a radiator part like curtains to reveal a dancing woman on a tile stage; a manmade roast chicken no bigger than a fist squirms and bleeds when someone tries to carve it; a man and woman live with their hideous birdlike baby in a dingy flat whose floors and shelves are covered with some tangled, decaying fibrous matter—all of this against a soundtrack of incessant pounding, hissing, squeaking noises, and in the most frightfully claustrophobic black-and-white you’ve ever seen.
If you really give yourself to the film (and there’s a point beyond which it’s pretty hard not to), you pretty soon find yourself shifting a little, seeking out the reassuring glow of the exit light or suppressing the impulse to say to your neighbor “I gotta find some way outta here!” I don’t subscribe to the notion that seeing a film—or any work of art—can damage the viewer; but if anyone could demonstrably suffer permanent damage from seeing a film, there’s a good chance that the film would be Eraserhead. I saw it, and count myself among the walking wounded. The film makes all other so-called “dream” films pale by comparison: it is the most thoroughly oneiric—in fact, literally nightmarish—film I’ve ever seen: vivid, disorienting, captivating, stirring in me terrors whose names I don’t even know. From the field of the personal (or “underground”) film, where there is so much self-indulgent crap, and so much more careless fakery, Eraserhead emerges as a truly subversive film. It gets personal with the viewer in ways so intimate, so embedded in the private recesses of consciousness you wouldn’t have thought it possible. Who is this David Lynch and how does he know? This is what madness might be like, he makes you think, this oppressive absurdity, now funny, now scary, now just plain weird, but making a kind of sense that has nothing at all to do with reason. Believe it: Eraserhead is The Real Thing.
© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow
Direction, screenplay, special effects, editing, production: David Lynch. Camera and lighting: Fred Elmes, Herbert Caldwell.
The players: John Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates.