Eraserhead is a 1977 American surrealist film and the first feature film of David Lynch, who wrote, produced and directed. Lynch began working on the film at the AFI Conservatory, which gave him a $10,000 to make the film after he had begun working there following his 1971 move to Los Angeles. The budget was not sufficient to complete the film and, as a result, Lynch worked on Eraserhead intermittently, using money from odd jobs and from friends and family, including childhood friend Jack Fisk, a production designer and the husband of actress Sissy Spacek, until its 1977 release.
Eraserhead polarized and baffled many critics and film-goers, but has become a cult classic. In 2004, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Lynch has called it a “dream of dark and troubling things” and his “most spiritual movie.”
Eraserhead is set in the heart of an industrial center in a nameless city, rife with urban decay. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a printer who is “on vacation” for the duration of the story. The film begins with the mysterious “Man in the Planet” (Jack Fisk) manipulating large mechanical levers while looking out of his window. As he does so, a ghostly flagellate-like creature emerges from the mouth of Henry, floating in space. The creature eventually flies away amidst images of rock formations, a circular opening, and bubbling fluid.
In the industrial center, Henry stumbles through the seemingly-unpopulated industrial wasteland to his apartment building with a bag of groceries. On his way in, a neighbour he is not familiar with, the “Beautiful Girl Across the Hall” (Judith Anna Roberts), tells him that his estranged girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) has invited him to dinner with her and her family. In Henry’s one room apartment, a sharp, distorted hissing noise (presumably the radiator) is continuously heard, large clumps of cut grass lie on the floor, a dead tree sapling planted in a pile of dirt sits directly on his nightstand, and a framed picture of a nuclear explosion hangs on the wall. The only window in his apartment faces the brick wall of another building.
That evening, Henry arrives at Mary’s home, as invited. Henry is disturbed by the awkward conversation forced by Mary’s mother (Jeanne Bates) as well as a strange fit Mary has; her mother reacts to it by furiously brushing her daughter’s hair. At the dinner table, he is puzzled by an emotional outburst by Mary’s mother, the banal, disconnected conversation offered by her father (Allen Joseph), and a miniature “man-made” roasted chicken he is given to carve, which kicks on his plate and gushes a dark liquid at the fork’s touch. The dinner conversation at Mary’s house is strained and awkward. Henry is later cornered by Mary’s mother, who attempts to kiss him before telling him that Mary has just given birth extremely prematurely. A tearful Mary insists that it’s unknown whether what she gave birth to was actually a baby, but her mother insists that it is a baby and that Henry is obliged to marry her.
Mary and the baby move into Henry’s one-room apartment. The baby is hideously deformed and very inhuman-like: its face resembles a large snout with slit nostrils, a long, pencil-thin neck, eyes on the sides of its head, no ears, glossy skin and a limbless body wrapped in bandages. Henry and Mary constantly struggle with caring for the baby as it refuses to eat and continually whines throughout the night.
One night, a hysterical Mary temporarily leaves for home due to her inability to sleep with the constantly-whining baby in the room. She demands that Henry take good care of the baby. After the baby falls silent, Henry checks its temperature. Looking away briefly to read the thermometer, Henry looks back at the baby to find that it is covered with sores and gasping for breath. Left to care for the baby by himself, Henry becomes involved in a series of strange events (many of which have little to no explanation to how or why they happen). These include bizarre encounters with the “Lady in the Radiator” (Laurel Near); visions of the Man in the Planet, and a sexual liaison with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. The Lady in the Radiator is a miniature woman with grotesquely distended cheeks who appears in his radiator, performing dance routines and singing on a miniature stage. Henry has a dream where his head pops off and his baby’s head comes up from between his shoulders, replacing it. Henry’s head sinks into a growing pool of blood on a tile floor, falls from the sky, and, finally, lands on an empty street in the industrial wasteland and cracks open. A young boy finds Henry’s broken head and takes it to a pencil factory, where the head is taken to a back room, and his brain is determined to be a serviceable material for pencil erasers. The boy is paid for bringing in Henry’s head, and the Pencil Machine Operator sweeps the eraser shavings off the desk and sends them billowing into the air.
After waking from this dream, Henry seeks out the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, but discovers that she is not home. The baby begins to cackle mockingly, and, shortly thereafter, Henry opens his door and sees the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall bringing another man back to her apartment. She looks at Henry, but is frightened by a vision of Henry’s head transforming into that of the baby. A disappointed Henry goes back into his apartment. Upon hearing the baby whine, he retrieves a pair of scissors. He hesitates, then cautiously cuts open the bandages wrapped around the baby’s body. Henry finds that the bandages were the only thing containing the baby’s internal organs; its body splits open and the vital organs are exposed. As the baby gasps in pain, a horrified Henry stabs its organs with the scissors. Rather than dying, however, the baby continues to convulse in pain, and Henry turns away in disgust. Large amounts of liquid gush forth from the organs, followed by huge quantities of a foamy substance that completely covers the baby’s body. Henry watches in horror as the apartment’s electricity suddenly overloads, causing the lights to flicker on and off. The baby’s neck extends to an extraordinary length, causing it to strongly resemble the flagellate creatures seen at the beginning the film. A giant apparition of its head then materializes in the apartment and approaches Henry. The lights burn out, and the head is replaced by a strange “planet”. The side of the hollow planet bursts open, and through the hole, the Man in the Planet is seen struggling with a series of levers, with sparks shooting from them, burning his face. The last scene features Henry being embraced by the Lady in the Radiator. They are bathed in white light, white noise builds to a crescendo, then stops as the screen goes black.
Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found in this film: