Though perhaps more well known for his oddball detective-soap-meets-the-supernatural, Twin Peaks, or his dark neo-noir, Blue Velvet (1986), it is his first feature length work, Eraserhead, that most clearly displays Lynch’s idiosyncratic style and masterful grasp of the weirder sides of life.
Eraserhead sets its scene in a shadowy, barren industrial wasteland, sound-tracked by both Lynch’s groaning, mechanic soundscapes, and the eerie organ music of Fats Waller. Loose though it is, the plot follows Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), as he deals with having to raise his deformed alien baby. The film is rife with Lynch’s signature dream sequences, leading to a disorienting story that seems to go nowhere. Nance’s anxious and frightened performance as Henry compounds the grim, intense atmosphere.
Where Lynch excels, perhaps more obviously in his more accessible later works, is his analysis of the dark underbelly of suburban life. Twin Peaks shows how the murder of a popular high school student shakes the core of a small town; Blue Velvet is very much along the same lines. Eraserhead is more subtle, but scenes such as Henry’s meeting with Mary X’s parents twist and distort aspects of daily life that we consider normal. If you enjoy Lynch’s films and television, but haven’t seen Eraserhead, it’s important to watch it in order to understand how his work has developed of the years.
Where Eraserhead excels is in its striking aesthetics; it is filmed in black and white, intensifying the decaying, almost post-apocalyptic world. The sound design is just as important in creating the unsettling atmosphere, with the gross burping of the ‘baby’ contrasting with the electric shocks and dings of the factories. The music – when it can be called that – is off-key and out of tune, the Lady in The Radiator’s ‘In Heaven (everything is fine)’ an odd composition both familiar and unplaceable in any sort of genre.
Lynch has since referenced Eraserhead-esque aesthetics in his work, notably in the more surreal episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, and in his recent short What Did Jack Do? (2019). However, only in Eraserhead is this form of Lynchian art film so purely distilled.