From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Eraserhead is a 1977 surrealist body horror film written and directed by American filmmaker David Lynch. Shot in black-and-white, Eraserhead is Lynch's first feature-length film, coming after several short works. The film was produced with the assistance of the American Film Institute (AFI) during the director's time studying there. Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Jeanne Bates, Judith Anna Roberts, Laurel Near, and Jack Fisk, it tells the story of Henry Spencer (Nance), who is left to care for his grossly deformed child in a desolate industrial landscape. Throughout the film, Spencer experiences dreams or hallucinations, featuring his child and the Lady in the Radiator (Near).
Eraserhead spent several years in principal photography because of the difficulty of funding the film; donations from Fisk and his wife Sissy Spacek kept production afloat. The film was shot on several locations owned by the AFI in California, including Greystone Mansion and a set of disused stables in which Lynch lived. Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet spent a year working on the film's audio after their studio was soundproofed. Eraserhead 's soundtrack features organ music by Fats Waller and includes the song "In Heaven", penned for the film by Peter Ivers.
Initially opening to small audiences and little interest, Eraserhead gained popularity over several long runs as a midnight movie. Since its release, the film has earned positive reviews. The surrealist imagery and sexual undercurrents have been seen as key thematic elements, and the intricate sound design as its technical highlight. Thematic analysis of the film has also highlighted these issues and has elaborated on Spencer's fatalism and inactivity. In 2004, the film was preserved in the National Film Registry, maintained by the United States Library of Congress.
The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) is seen moving levers in his home in space, while the head of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is seen floating in the sky. A spermatozoon-like creature emerges from Spencer's mouth, floating into the void.
In an industrial cityscape, Spencer 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. Spencer leaves his groceries in his apartment, which is filled with piles of dirt and dead vegetation. That night, Spencer visits X's home, conversing awkwardly with her mother (Jeanne Bates). At the dinner table, he is asked to carve a chicken that X's talkative father (Allen Joseph) has "made"; the bird moves and writhes on the plate and gushes blood. After dinner, Spencer is cornered by X's mother, who tries to kiss him. She tells him that X has had his child and that the two must marry. X, however, is not sure if what she bore is a child.
The couple move into Spencer'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 X hysterical, and she leaves Spencer and the child. Spencer attempts to care for the child, and he learns that it struggles to breathe and has developed painful sores.
Spencer 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 Spencer's child. After a sexual encounter with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, Spencer has another vision, seeing his own head fall off, revealing a stump underneath that resembles the child's face. Spencer'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. Spencer is then seen, in his normal form, in a billowing cloud of eraser shavings.
Spencer tries to seek out the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, but she has begun taking other men home. Crushed, Spencer returns to his room, where the child is crying. He takes a pair of scissors and for the first time removes the child's swaddling. 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 Spencer 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. The side of the planet bursts apart, and inside, the Man in the Planet struggles with his levers, which are now emitting sparks. Spencer 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.