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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
ERASERHEAD - 1977
USA Release: Feb. 3, 1978
American Film Institute (AFI), Libra Films
Rating: Argentina, Iceland, Netherlands: 16 / Australia: M / Canada: R / Denmark: 7 / Finland: K-14 / France:-16 / West Germany, Ireland: 18 / Singapore: PG / Norway, South Korea, Sweden: 15 / Portugal: M/16 / Spain: 13 / UK: 15, UK: X (original rating) / USA: Unrated
I discovered ERASERHEAD in an arthouse cinema, where apparently, it'd been playing for years. A friend took me to see it with promises of strange weirdness. This was due to a conversation about a week earlier when she challenged me on my strange weirdness quotient and I said something to the effect of, "The Weirder the better."
Though she took me on this tour of the weird (in Seattle no less), what I didn't know was that she'd never experienced ERASERHEAD herself, but wanted to knock this young (at that time) Horror Thriller movie know-it-all down a few pegs. She used the week in-between time to ask around, hoping to find something which even I could not affect a jaded air. What she didn't know was that I wasn't being presumptuous, I really WAS looking for something to knock me on my ass. And what SHE didn't know was that, when it came to Horror Thriller strange weirdness, ERASERHEAD would be more than she bargained for.
Even today, ERASERHEAD is Director David Lynch's most twisted vision ever. It's possibly the strangest movie ever made. Anyone trying to raise the bar on this one has failed so far. It's seemingly impossible to make a film more bizarre than ERASERHEAD and still remain coherent.
ERASERHEAD starts with a wide-eyed and fearful Henry Spencer (Jack "John" Nance: THE BLOB ). Henry might be having a bad dream. There's a lot of unexplainable imagery here, compounded by a sound that would make hard-core industrial bands bow in supplication. But unlike most films, Lynch takes an almost silent picture ethos to his black and white movie.
There is little dialogue, no ambient noise, just an intimidating mix of ancient, mechanical, industrial sounds.
This isn't a movie about robots, though the rotting, backward world of dystopian industry is the backdrop. Everything mechanical struggles mindlessly to work. There is no efficiency, only gearshift mediocrity. Everything works, just barely. There is a rock, or maybe a planet, and within that planet is a man (Jack Fisk) with a severe, disfiguring skin disease. He sits by a window, painfully twitching and shuddering in the dark. He reaches out to some gears in front of him and pulls them toward him, one by one. Each time he does, something changes in Henry's dream. Somewhere a steam whistle screams.
Awake, Henry fearfully makes his way across an industrialized landscape of barren soil, indifferent towering buildings, and factories. All the while, he clutches a bag to his chest. At the end of his journey, there is no discernible reason for the bag. Henry, like many of the people in this film, has unexplained reasons for doing what he does, routines that they follow suggesting that Horror and evil isn't found in unreasonable chaos, but in unreasonable order.
For me, watching ERASERHEAD makes me think of untold millennia of people doing what they do because "This is the way we've always done it.", long after the reason behind it ceased to exist. The city grows on top of its decay. Plumbing and wiring awkwardly run through it: printshops, hospitals, and all of the other dross of infrastructure without purpose. It doesn't make anyone's life better, it might even make their lives worse, but it gives them a place to be as they live out their existence.
Henry makes it home through this dark passionless city, to his anonymous apartment building, and rides a slow and faltering elevator up to his floor. His neighbor (Judith Roberts: SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, DEAD SILENCE), a beautiful woman with a hungry expression, delivers a message.
We get a glimpse into the tidy yet decrepit little studio apartment Henry calls home. Small even for a hotel room, there are areas that appear to be little more than a well arranged rat's nest: perhaps a carefully arranged lump of pine needles. A plant sits on his bedside table in a mound of dirt - no pot - piled up on the small table. And yet the dirt and plant are neat and well tended.
What this opening scene does is draw us into a world far different from our experience, yet recognizable in so many unsettling ways: A nightmarish world of loss and alien noise. While nothing scary has happened in these opening minutes, we are sitting there plucked from our comfort zone.
Responding to the message, Henry gets dressed nicely, complete with pocket protector, and goes to visit his erstwhile girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart: TREMORS, TREMORS 3). What happens next is the worst meet-the-parents ever committed to film. If someone in the scene pulled out a gun or even a chainsaw, it could not have been worse. Yet at the same time, through this depressive mire of staggered, damaged lives, there is plenty of morbid humor that makes you choke on your laughter.
Henry soon discovers a few things about his girlfriend's family. Mary has some kind of inherited nervous syndrome. Mary's Mother has a creepy crush on Henry, and the reason Mary hasn't been around lately is that she got pregnant and gave birth to... something.
Mary: "The doctor's aren't sure it even IS a baby!"
Pressed into marriage out of propriety rather than love, Henry's horrible life gets worse. While Henry tries to make the best of a bad situation, his tiny apartment isn't big enough for two people and now there's a third with the baby. And I'm telling you, if you've never seen ERASERHEAD, this is the ugliest baby in cinema. The baby in IT'S ALIVE and BASKET CASE have nothing on the ERASERHEAD baby. And even if you've seen photos of the baby? That still doesn't carry off the sympathetic terror of this child as when you see it move, interact, and hear it cry.
ERASERHEAD was David Lynch's first film and, due to budget constraints, it took him five years to make it.
As a big time Horror Thriller fan, I've known people who belong to a specific group of Horror fans. They like to go to Horror movies to NOT be scared. They like to brag that such and such scary movie didn't phase them: they were bored.
ERASERHEAD cuts through such posturing. Through the years I've also known a few people who, after watching it, first claimed that it meant nothing to them, only to admit, days after, that it was the only movie that ever gave them nightmares.
It completely immerses you in an experience that many have said is a bad dream committed to film.
One other thing to note. If you only saw ERASERHEAD in art house theaters, you should know that you've likely been watching damaged, clipped, picture and sound worn prints. Even the VHS tape of this movie was sub par. The DVD is referred to by David Lynch himself as ERASERHEAD 2000. David didn't do anything stupid to his first born, like Lucas with Star Wars or Spielberg with E.T., he only digitally restored the images to their original master print appearance and cleaned the sound to pristine perfection. Until there is a BLU-RAY copy of ERASERHEAD (UPDATE: And there is), this is as beautiful as this movie has looked since the 1970s - and many of us weren't even alive in the 1970s (well, I was, but I'm hardly many).
ERASERHEAD will get you in touch with some dark places you'd rather not see. Any movie this Horrific gets all 5 ShriekGirls.
This review copyright 2009 E.C.McMullen Jr.
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