|By Joshua Zyber
April 5, 2000
Has another film ever captured the palpable textures of a nightmare so well as Eraserhead? David Lynchís debut feature is a surreal dreamscape of haunting imagery, intense alienation, and grotesque deformation. The film works on a mostly subconscious level, inundating the viewer with obscure symbolism and half-comprehensible circular logic. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker this might come across pretentious, but Lynch is such a skilled craftsman that the film seems to leap directly out of your unconscious mind onto the screen.
Poor Henry, working class schlub with a Bride of Frankenstein haircut and not a whole lot of joy in his life, walks through a hellish cityscape of smoke, shadows, rusted pipes, sporadic jets of steam, and an ever-present rumbling in the distance. His prized possession is a mysterious seed that he receives in the mail and places in a mound of dirt near his bedside. His only form of entertainment is a steam radiator that he stares intently into until he has visions of a tiny stage with a squirrel-cheeked woman doing a bashful two-step.
Henry seems to have gotten his girlfriend pregnant, though he doesnít understand how she could have given birth so quickly. The baby looks rather like a hairless mutant calf fetus, and the creature effect is so convincing that to this day Lynch refuses to discuss how he achieved it. The babyís constant wailing drives the mother away and it seems to taunt Henry with an evil laugh. To summarize the rest of the narrative is difficult because the film is more about mood and ambience than it is about plot. Events seem to move from one feverish hallucination to the next. Much can be interpreted into the symbolism in the film, but the overriding themes are of emotional disenfranchisement, the breakdown of the family unit, and the terrors of fatherhood. That Lynch was a first time father himself with a failing marriage at the time of the filmís production can hardly be coincidental, though he may claim that the film is not autobiographical.
Eraserhead is a unique film, bizarre beyond words, quite disturbing, and also darkly comic. Lynchís portrait of the nuclear family is particularly funny, with its lecherous mother, daft father, and seemingly dead grandmother sitting in the kitchen. This is the stuff that cult films are made of, and that is exactly what Eraserhead has become. The movie was made on a shoestring budget over a grueling period of five years, with as little as one shot being completed per night. Upon its eventual release it ran the midnight movie circuit successfully for several years and Mel Brooks was so amused by its eccentricities that he hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man, his first shot at mainstream recognition.
Sadly, due to rights issues stemming from its low budget financing, the movie has had a checkered history on home video. It was released on both VHS and laserdisc in the United States in very limited pressings. Those who actually managed to obtain a copy in either format would find the image composition cropped to 1.33:1 and the picture quality muddy and impenetrable. All was not lost, however. Comstock Ltd. was able to obtain the Japanese video rights and released an exceptional laserdisc through Pioneer Japan. Having seen the film in all current video formats as well as a 35mm restored film print, I have to say that the Japanese laserdisc is the best available release version of the film.
The filmís photography is a complex layering of darkness upon darkness. Previous video editions leave you staring at a brownish black mess with barely a discernable image through the whole running time. Even the re-release film print I viewed was often murky and indecipherable. The import laserdisc, on the other hand, has been very carefully mastered from source elements in terrific condition. The image is sharp, the gray scale well delineated, and age-related speckling kept to an acceptable minimum. In order to compensate for the dark photography, the disc producers have raised the brightness level on the transfer a bit higher than normal. They have perhaps gone a little overboard. I prefer to pull the Brightness setting on my television down a few notches before watching. This is still a very dark film, donít get me wrong, and requires your viewing room to be in total darkness for best effect. Any background light or glare can be a tremendous distraction. This isn't the type of movie you want to watch in the middle of the afternoon anyway.
The picture has been letterboxed to approximately 1.75:1 and contains additional picture information on both sides of the screen in comparison to the cropped 1.33:1 ratio of previous releases. The addition may be slight but is a significant improvement in several instances. The shot of Henry removing the sperm-like parasites from his sleeping girlfriend and throwing them to the far side of the room had previously ended with the little buggers flying off screen, but now you can see them actually hit and bounce off the wall. The picture still seems to be missing a sliver of information off the right side in comparison to the film print, but nothing of great detriment. The on-screen title at the beginning of the film appears shifted to the left of the screen rather than centered as you would expect, but this is not a mistake or cropping. It was deliberate and appeared that way on the film print as well. There are Japanese subtitles burned into the picture, but there is so little dialogue in the film that they are hardly distracting. In fact, for someone unfamiliar with the Japanese language these strange-shaped symbols at the bottom of the screen seem perfectly fitting with the atmosphere of the picture.
The filmís sound design is a fascinating experiment in unsettling ambient noises. Careful attention was given to the subtle distinction in aural texture between one location and the next. The disc pulls this off with great effect, though it is essential that the volume be turned up high to truly appreciate and understand the impact that was intended.
The disc comes in a handsome jacket and includes several Japanese theatrical trailers after the end credits. It was rumored that The Criterion Collection wanted to prepare a domestic DVD release for this film, an idea that holds great potential, but apparently Lynch refused to allow them the rights to the movie and the project was scrapped. That is a disappointment, but an Eraserhead fan could hardly ask for a better presentation for the movie than this previously available import laserdisc.
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