Saturday, October 06, 2012

Making Monsters #5: Eraserhead

Eraserhead, along with a few of David Lynch's other films, often pops up on lists of the best horror movies even though it's not a horror movie as we generally understand the term (and it's actually quite funny from a certain point of view). But while Eraserhead doesn't feature supernatural beasts or a masked killer picking off one horny teenager at a time, it's frightening in a more abstract, existential way, a feature-length nightmare as dreamt by a mysterious technician in space who never wakes up. Eraserhead was Lynch's first feature, the first in a line of movies that explore the darkest aspects of human nature in a way that is as beautiful as it is horrifying. Much of the impact of his films can be attributed to Lynch's very personal approach to filmmaking, both in his gift for seemingly transferring the contents of his imagination to the screen intact and in his direct, hands-on involvment in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking process. Many of his collaborators have shared anecdotes about how Lynch is always eager to solve a problem on set by creating a prop or set decoration out of available materials, or writing the lyrics for "Mysteries of Love" during a lunch break on Blue Velvet when the production was unable to license This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren." This was never more true than on Eraserhead, which Lynch shot a little at a time, with very limited money and resources, over the course of four years. It was the typical no-budget situation with a director wearing many different hats, and Lynch's fingerprints are both figuratively and literally all over the movie. 

There's no creepier or more memorable example of Lynch's hands-on involvement than Eraserhead's infamous baby ("They're not even sure it is a baby!"). After his wife bails, nebbishy factory worker Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is left to take care of this squealing, alien-looking thing with black eyes; the baby's barely-there facial features and squirming, tortured expressions are as creepy to audiences discovering the movie today as they were to midnight audiences 35 years ago. The meaning of the baby and the movie remain elusive - saying Eraserhead is about the fear of fatherhood is a start, but it doesn't begin to explain everything. Lynch is famously reluctant to discuss the meaning of his work; with Eraserhead, he has always refused to explain how he created the baby as well, which has helped it retain much of its power. The thing looks like a crude puppet, but it has a sticky organic quality as well that has led people over the years to speculate that it's made from a cow fetus or other once-living tissue. I Googled "cow fetus" and don't think that's what it is (also, blechhh), but that the idea is even worth fact-checking says all you need to know. Even if the baby is as basic an effect as the models used to bring Kong to life, it retains an unsettling believability; we don't see the strings, we only see a creature born directly from Lynch's and our nightmares. And that's before it gets sick...

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