Eraserhead

Background

Eraserhead was directed by David Lynch and released in 1977. It was originally released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion as spine #725 on September 16, 2014. It is the only film directed by David Lynch in the collection, although they own the rights to several of his short films, all of which appear on this release.

Story

Henry Spencer (John Nance) learns that his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth to their child, who is horrifically deformed and doesn’t resemble a human baby at all. Henry is left alone to care for the child when Mary can no longer stand its wailing. Meanwhile, Henry flirts with the Beautiful Girl Across The Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), visits the Lady In The Radiator (Laurel Near), and has visions of his head being chopped off. Then it starts getting weird.

The Film

Eraserhead is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s terrifying and awe-inspiring, beautiful and disgusting, meaningful and…well, some would say “impenetrable.” That last element leads a lot of people to give up on the film and dismiss it as cinematic gibberish, but frankly, I’ve never had any trouble “getting” Eraserhead. It’s an expression of Lynch’s fears surrounding fatherhood, but the fact that it’s an expression and not a literal explanation throws a lot of viewers off. Eraserhead never offers a key to unlocking itself, but there’s nothing much to unlock. You know how soon-to-be-parents say that they “just hope the baby has ten fingers and ten toes”? That’s Eraserhead in a nutshell. It’s about the fear that your baby will come out looking like a horrific monster, and the anxiety that comes with not knowing how to care for it. Henry’s baby drives him to insanity, and his final action is as despicable as it is cathartic.

But Eraserhead isn’t all horror. People almost never talk about how funny it is. An early scene where Henry has dinner with Mary and her parents filters a universally awkward experience through Lynch’s surrealist vision. Sure, it’s weird that Mary starts having a weird seizure that only stops when her mother brushes her hair, and it’s strange that the minuscule chicken Henry is served starts to bleed profusely when he cuts it, but is it any more uncomfortable than any dinner anyone’s ever had with their significant other’s parents? Lynch’s films almost all focus on the darkness beneath seemingly normal or idyllic things. Eraserhead does too, but in its case that darkness is inextricably tied with normality. There’s no “normal” top-layer to this world, it’s all just scary and bizarre by default.

I understand why people hate this film, but it’s hard to do so because I find it so completely delightful. That’s a weird word to use in regard to a film like this, I know, but it’s true. I can’t help but applaud Lynch’s staunch refusal to make films for anyone other than himself. It’s clear that he doesn’t care whether you “get” Eraserhead or not, because he’s going to make what he wants to make and your opinion doesn’t matter to him in the least. I’ve always admired that confidence in an artist, especially when it leads to works as transcendent and singular as Eraserhead.

Transfer/Restoration

Eraserhead was given a 4K digital restoration for this release, and the Blu-Ray looks phenomenal. I’ve seen the film many times, but never like this. Viewing this restoration was like seeing the film for the first time. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. This film wasn’t meant to be seen in 1080p on a big TV, it was meant to be seen on a scratchy worn-out VHS on a tiny TV. At midnight. In your basement. Alone, preferably. Eraserhead isn’t a film for the HD/Streaming-era. This transfer does succeed in the sound department, though. The film’s sound design is a big part of what makes it so disturbing, and on this release it all comes across crystal-clear. For that reason alone, this transfer of Eraserhead is a winner.

WARNING: There have been reports of a problem with the current release of Eraserhead. There are five seconds of a black screen in the film where there shouldn’t be. Criterion, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t officially addressed this, but they’ve told people who emailed them that a replacement disc program will go into effect as soon as they’ve manufactured corrected versions. You might want to hold off on purchasing the film until they’ve fixed this problem, which hopefully they will soon.

Supplements

If you’re a Lynch fan, the special features on this release will have you drooling. The supplements are sorted by year, which I’ve never seen Criterion do. It makes finding things a bit more difficult, but I assume this was a Lynch request since he worked so closely with them on the release. There’s an original trailer for the film, which is fun, as well as an interview with Lynch from back when Eraserhead was starting to become a big deal. Lynch is his usual enigmatic self, and it’s so much fun to watch the interviewer try and deal with his refusal to give straightforward answers. There’s also a great documentary by Lynch called “Eraserhead” Stories, which is an absolute must-see if you’re as big a fan of the film as I am. There are a bunch of interviews with the cast and crew as well, mostly talking about how great the experience was but also offering some interesting tidbits about the production. There’s also a nice thick booklet with a long interview from Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch, which is fascinating and enlightening. The real of this release is the restored Lynch short films. There are six of them, five of which pre-date Eraserhead, and they’re all pretty much what you’d expect. Criterion really went above and beyond here, as there was no obligation to include these shorts. Having them there really rounds out the package, and hopefully if there are more Lynch films on Criterion in the future (fingers crossed for that rumored Mulholland Drive release), they’ll have some shorts included as well.

Overall

Eraserhead is one of my favorite films, and its Criterion release is now one of my favorite Criterions. The behind-the-scenes features are great, the restoration is beautiful, and there are all those short films to boot. It’s hard to recommend this to someone who isn’t familiar with Lynch, but this release is really tailored towards fans of him and the film itself. If you’re one of those fans, there’s no excuse not to pick this one up. Once they’ve fixed that little error, of course.

Criterion Grade: A

Film Grade: A+