Eraserhead (1977)

Forty-five years ago today, the film Eraserhead premiered at the Filmex film festival in Los Angeles. On its opening night, the film was attended by twenty-five people; twenty-four viewed it the following evening. However, Ben Barenholtz, head of distributor Libra Films, persuaded local theater Cinema Village to run the film as a midnight feature, where it continued for a year. After this, it ran for ninety-nine weeks at New York’s Waverly Cinema, had a year-long midnight run at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater from 1978 to 1979, and achieved a three-year tenure at Los Angeles’ Nuart Theatre between 1978 and 1981.

In 2004, Eraserhead was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. Selection for the Registry is based on a film being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Eraserhead was one of the subjects featured in the 2005 documentary Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, which charted the rise of the midnight movie phenomenon in the late 1960s and 1970s; Lynch took part in the documentary through a series of interviews. The production covers six films which are credited as creating and popularizing the genre; also included are Night of the Living Dead, El Topo, Pink Flamingos, The Harder They Come, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

In 2010, the Online Film Critics Society compiled a list of the 100 best directorial débuts, listing what they felt were the best first-time feature films by noted directors. Eraserhead placed second in the poll, behind Orson Welles’s 1941 Citizen Kane.

Lynch collaborated with most of the cast and crew of Eraserhead again on later films. Frederick Elmes served as cinematographer on Blue Velvet, 1988’s The Cowboy and the Frenchman, and 1990’s Wild at Heart. Alan Splet provided sound design for The Elephant Man, Dune, and Blue Velvet. Jack Fisk directed episodes of Lynch’s 1992 television series On the Air and worked as a production designer on 1999’s The Straight Story and 2001’s Mulholland Drive. Coulson and Nance appeared in Twin Peaks, and made further appearances in Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and 1997’s Lost Highway.

Title: Eraserhead
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch
Produced by: David Lynch
Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Roberts
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell
Edited by: David Lynch
Music by: David Lynch, Fats Waller, and Peter Ivers
Production company: AFI Center for Advanced Studies
Distributed by: Libra Films
Release date: March 19, 1977
Running time: 89 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English
Box office: $7 million

The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) is moving levers in his home in space, while the head of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) floats in the sky. A spermatozoon-like creature emerges from Henry’s mouth, floating into the void.

In an industrial cityscape, Henry walks home with his groceries. He is stopped outside his apartment by the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), who informs him that his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), has invited him to dinner with her family. Henry leaves his groceries in his apartment, which is filled with piles of dirt and dead vegetation. That night, Henry visits Mary’s home, conversing awkwardly with her mother. At the dinner table, he is asked to carve a chicken that Mary’s father has “made”; the bird moves and writhes on the plate and gushes blood when cut. After dinner, Henry is cornered by Mary’s mother, who tries to kiss him. She tells him that Mary has had his child and that the two must marry. Mary, however, is not sure if what she bore is a child.

The couple move into Henry’s one-room apartment and begin caring for the child—a swaddled bundle with an inhuman, snakelike face, resembling the spermatozoon creature seen earlier. The infant refuses all food, crying incessantly and intolerably. The sound drives Mary hysterical, and she leaves Henry and the child. Henry attempts to care for the child, and he learns that it struggles to breathe and has developed painful sores.

Henry begins experiencing visions, again seeing the Man in the Planet, as well as the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), who sings to him as she stomps upon miniature replicas of Henry’s child. After a sexual encounter with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, Henry has another vision, seeing his own head fall off, revealing a stump underneath that resembles the child’s face. Henry’s head falls from the sky, landing on a street and breaking open. A boy finds it, bringing it to a pencil factory to be turned into erasers.

Awakened, Henry seeks out the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, but finds her with another man. Crushed, Henry returns to his room. He takes a pair of scissors and for the first time removes the child’s swaddling clothes. It is revealed that the child has no skin; the bandages held its internal organs together, and they spill apart after the rags are cut. The child gasps in pain, and Henry stabs its organs with the scissors. The wounds gush a thick liquid, covering the child. The power in the room overloads, causing the lights to flicker; as they flick on and off the child grows to huge proportions. As the lights burn out completely, the child’s head is replaced by the planet seen at the beginning. Henry appears amidst a billowing cloud of eraser shavings. The side of the planet bursts apart, and inside, the Man in the Planet struggles with his levers, which are now emitting sparks. Henry is embraced warmly by the Lady in the Radiator, as both white light and white noise build to a crescendo before the screen turns black and silent.

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