A Dream of Dark and Troubling Things
Despite not having released anything in the realm of TV or film since 2017, with the world shutting down many months ago, it has surprisingly proved to be a pretty good time to be a David Lynch fan. The YouTuber has been putting out a steady stream of content through his channel, with daily weather/work updates, short film releases, and something which I don’t quite understand wherein he pulls numbered balls out of a jar to give ‘the number of the day’. Now, with Criterion releasing their edition of Eraserhead in the UK this week, they are contributing to what I am dubbing “Lynch Lockdown”.
Establishing itself on the midnight movie circuit on original release and subsequently running for years, Eraserhead is the textbook example of a cult classic. As time goes on, it continues to solidify that status, as well as becoming a staple of arthouse horror along the way. Although, as we move further on from its original release, I doubt on first viewing, anyone watching would see it under those conditions. For me, I first saw it in college after seeing it featured in a clickbait article titled something along the lines of “Top 10 craziest movies of all time, you’ll never be the same after!”. I loved it, and for the while, it actually did remain one of the scariest things I’d ever seen, but for the longest time I would struggle to actually tell you why.
Watching the movie today, I think I can understand it a little better, at least as far as something like this can be understood. We open up with a horizontal Henry (Jack Nance) floating in the air, an image of his head shown transparently over a planet, with the next minute covered in strange imagery, we see a man inside his head pull a lever to set the film into motion.
This opening really throws down the gauntlet, and is still jarring on what must be overall my third or fourth watch. But immediately what I’m noticing is how good the film is looking. While some might argue a grainy grubbiness would enhance your experience of this particular film (to which I’d say that the film does a pretty good job of that itself) Criterions job on the 4k restoration looks fantastic, and could have easily convinced me this was a far more recently made film.
After this, we follow Henry back to his apartment, then his girlfriend -Mary’s (Charlotte Stewart) -house for dinner. It’s then revealed she’d been pregnant, and after an uncomfortable family meal, they move in together to look after their horror of a child, where expectedly things go (even more) awry. Henry struggles with fatherhood, his own desire, and fantasy of what could have been. As for plot, without giving too much away, that’s really as far as it goes. For the most part, Eraserhead is pretty light on dialogue and to an extent surface narrative, and leaves a lot up to the viewers own interpretation.
The film relies far more on its tone and its mood. This release comes with a TV collaboration feature, something I only mention due to the rarity of which I see this, and it is a welcome edition. Filmed in black and white, viewing it with the correct settings is key to best lifting its atmosphere. The brutal ambient soundtrack makes it feel like a living industrial world, the harsh colour scheme, handmade sets, practical effects, and scenes of unexpected surrealism all help to create this awkward aura of something being horribly wrong.
Certain events go completely unexplained adding to its strange oddball vibe. Mary’s mother aggressively kisses Henry after confronting him, Henry has a mound of dirt on his bedside table, an elevator taking forever to close its doors once someone gets in. Nothing explicitly scary about any of those, but together, with this atmosphere it creates, all add to viewers confusion and need for answers.
Eraserhead demands you to try and understand it, and I can get how this might rub people the wrong way. It’s not something that can easily be consumed and enjoyed while on your phone, or maybe even in over a single viewing. Thinking back, what I enjoyed so much about this way back in college was that it was one of the first films I’d ever seen to actively challenge me in what I was watching. It showed me something cryptic, and disturbing, and made me want to figure it for hours after the fact. Despite its short runtime, I’m convinced there’s a scene that will stick in your head roughly every 15 minutes, and whether you love it or hate it, 43 years later, there’s still nothing like it.
We have 5 of Lynch’s early shorts (6 depending on how you count it), all of which have a high definition restoration, as well as an introduction from the man himself.
All but one of these were made before Eraserhead which gives an interesting picture of pre-feature Lynch. A lot of these are highly experimental, but we get to see the first footings of the directors distinct style. On its experimentation, we see a mixture of mediums, Six Men Getting Sick was originally an art installation, with projection on sculpture, lasting only a minute – looped a number of times. The Amputee has two versions; the same script shot twice created as a test on different types of film stock, a curious oddity, and on a second viewing doesn’t really give you much about trying to figure out which one actually looks better.
Watching these after Eraserhead, or even having some familiarity with his further filmography, you can spot themes or features which will show up again in his later work. Which if it was anyone else would feel like someone recycling old material, but with Lynch and the strength of his own creativity, these similarities feel as though they contribute to a greater shared universe, rather than just playing out the hits.
How much you get out of these shorts will vary. While a number of these have been featured in other releases and are quite widely accessible, they are still a welcome addition. Most of them run fairly short (with the exception of The Grandmother) only lasting a few minutes, and seconds in some instances, so it’s hardly a large investment for your curiosity.
The supplements are a catch all for everything else, a bit of a mixed bag of features. Ranging from 1977 – 2014, what’s immediately obvious is the lack of labeling. Identified only by the year rather than the contents, it’s difficult to understand what’s actually in here. Instead, once turned on, you’re presented with a little title card, which gives a short description of what you’re already watching. Very small, but this is one of my few gripes with the collection, this strange presentation just ends up meaning that you’ve got to scroll through each of the features to find the one you want.
On top of all of this, most surprising to me, was the inclusion of Eraserhead: Stories – a feature length documentary looking back at the making of, and directed by Lynch himself. This was something I’d never seen before, and as a fan it confused me that this wasn’t front and center, and only distinguished by its year of release. Probably worth a review in and of itself, and by no means a conventional documentary. We get to watch a black and white static shot of Lynch shooting the breeze reminiscing of the film’s production. Part way through, calling Catherine Coulson to help out, who while uncredited was heavily involved behind the scenes.
While not life changing, it’s a really nice watch listening to the two meandre and reminisce about the production. It’s like listening to a grandparent who sets out to tell a story and gets completely sidetracked with sub stories – sometimes losing the thread – but you enjoy it nonetheless.
Bundled alongside the release we also get a very nice 60 odd page accompanying booklet. Within we’ve got some nice production images, various production credits/acknowledgements and its main feature which takes up the majority of the booklet, an interview between Chris Rodley and Lynch himself. This expectedly focuses on the Eraserhead period of his career, taken from the Rodley’s book: Lynch on Lynch.
It’s a fun little interview. If you’ve already read the source material prior it’s light enough to flick through before you sit down to watch. Reading this after consuming all the special features. The thing that shines through most is Lynch’s genuine fondness for that period of his life. While all the descriptions sound like the flick was made in absolute squalor, the way the director rattles off random people’s names and events, with each one being treated with equal levels of importance, is kind of inspiring. Each instance spoken with such clarity it could have just happened yesterday.
All together this is a fantastic package. From sheer content of this collection alone, it eclipses previous releases of Eraserhead. The film looks as good as it’s ever done, and as a whole, an excellent collection of an iconic directors’ early career. Over the few sittings it took for me to watch everything, it creates a complete image of how everything came about, its production, and everything that came along with it, which ultimately left me with a greater appreciation for a film I already loved. With its beautiful presentation, this is a must have for Lynch fans. With everything on here there’s bound to be at least something you haven’t seen before, and if not, then an excellent excuse for another watch.
Special Features Contents:
- New 4k digital restoration, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack
- “Eraserhead” Stories, a 2001 documentary by David Lynch on the making of the film
- New high-definition restorations of six short films by Lynch: Six Figures Getting Sick (1966), The Alphabet (1968), The Grandmother (1970), The Amputee, Part 1 and Part 2 (1974) and Premonitions Following an Evil Deed (1996), all with video introductions by Lynch
- New and archival interviews with cast and crew