by Steve Beard
Empire Magazine, UK
Director: David Lynch
It's hard to believe that 20 years ago David Lynch was in the middle of a six year struggle to make Eraserhead on a piffling American Film Institute grant. It's harder still to believe that its closeted body horror and mind blown surrealism have since almost become a part of the cultural landscape. Almost. For no matter how many cheesy pop videos or arty horror flicks rip off its (very late 70s) aesthetic of slimy industrial decay, this film remains as powerful, original and disturbing as ever.
The central conceit of boy-meets- girl-has-mutant- baby is still the stuff of American Gothic nightmares and Lynch's repertoire of soft squelches, thin skins, horrible blobs and panicky gestures remain an enduring archetype of puritan sexual disgust. What is surprising is how Jack Nance's grumpily delicate performance as the frustrated father, Henry, has become a period piece. With his trademark props - pens in breast pocket, electro-shock hair-do, white socks - he has come to resemble an old silent comedian stranded in a Bunuel twilight zone where the familiar punch-lines don't work any more. He is at one more charming and less grotesque than he used to be.
What emerges most clearly from the film, post-Twin Peaks, is the offbeat humour. The old black comedy is still there - Henry's crazy in-laws and their nervous tics, the mini-chickens which come alive on the plate, the final in fact apocalypse - but it is now boxed in by a more insistent tone of uncanny menace which surely amounts to a put on. Think of the smiley lady-behind the radiator stomping the foetal worms which are running her act, or the creepy, echoey sound-effects, or Nance's puzzled reaction shots - they are like that moment of blankness which precedes a surprise party. Except, with Lynch, the blankness goes on forever and the party never happens.
Eraserhead | David Lynch main page
© Mike Hartmann