“Horror movies don’t scare me.”
This is a mantra I have heard from almost every one of my horror-loving peers at one point or another. Many of the horror fans I know openly declare that fright flicks have never, for them, had their intended effect. I have heard stories about how some of these people were taken to particularly gory R-rated films as 7- and 8-year-olds, and how they were giggling, even at that tender age, at the rending of human bodies.
Horror movies do scare me. Well, good ones, anyway; a crappy horror flick will likely bore me and/or merely gross me out with extreme gore (which, don’t get me wrong, can be a cinematic virtue unto itself). But when I started watching horror movies at the too-early age of 8 (POLTERGEIST ruined my childhood too!), they gave me nightmares. I would wake up in the middle of the night crying. I had to shy away from the horror section at my local video store, and I even had trouble looking at Iron Maiden album covers. Perhaps I was a skittish child, but I was afraid to watch horror movies.
But, ironically enough, I was drawn intensely to them. I always wanted to hear stories from my braver friends about the events of, say A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: THE DREAM WARRIORS, as I loved the saga of the giant slimy worms that ate people alive, or tales of how a young man’s veins were ripped out to serve as marionette strings. I loved to poke at my fears. Only on certain brazen nights would I seek to actually watch a horror movie. And, once again, they would give me nightmares.
The scariest films, in my eye, always resembled nightmares. Nightmares are not cogent. They follow no narrative, they feature no logic. They are just about anxiety, death, pain, and a surreal dream logic that one cannot put into words. They are emotions unadulterated. We cannot make sense of them after the fact, but they feel terrifyingly real in the moment. This is why David Lynch’s 1977 debut feature ERASERHEAD is the scariest film of the 1970s.
Described by Lynch as “A dream of dark and troubling things,” ERASERHEAD debuted to indifferent crowds, and only eventually grew a cult following throughout the early 1980s as part of the then-nascent midnight movie circuit. But unlike other super-hot midnight movies of the time (THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, EL TOPO, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE HARDER THEY COME, PINK FLAMINGOS), ERASERHEAD wasn’t rambunctious, silly, or fun. ERASERHEAD was off-putting. It was oblique and obscure. It followed no conventional narrative, had minimal dialogue, and played more like an ambitious student project than a feature film released in theaters.
Indeed, ERASERHEAD was Lynch’s first feature film out of art school. The story goes that he was to be given a grant following his impressive work in various art classes, and Lynch took so long on the production (on and off for about five years) that the school eventually just sort of forgot about him.
ERASERHEAD takes place in a gray, unfamiliar world of smoggy skies, industrial moaning, and ancient apartment buildings lost to time. Our hero, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a timid, pale-faced being who lives in a tiny, tiny room, and dreams of… escape? Freedom? Love? All we know is that he is miserable, and he has visions of a cancerous Kewpie-doll woman living in his radiator. His girlfriend is Mary (Charlotte Stewart), a weepy waif who lives with her parents. Over dinner one night (after the miniature chicken meal springs to life and spews blood all over the plate), it’s revealed that Mary and Henry have had a baby and must move in together.
The baby itself is one of the more iconic images in cinema. It’s a shiny, wet creature with an elongated snout, and a body that is perpetually wrapped in mummifying cloth. The baby has no name. It cries and pulsates, and occasionally laughs at Henry. It is a monster. Lynch has been famously coy about how he made the baby effects, hoping that you’d focus on the movie rather than the nuts and bolts of how it was made. Rumor has it, though, that it is an animated calf fetus. Whatever it is, it’s ghastly and unsettling.
The comment here may be that fatherhood is a monstrous experience, and Lynch had recently had his first child, although he insists that the movie not about fatherhood at all.
Mary eventually moves out, and Henry is allowed to languish alone with the baby. He tries having a weird affair with the woman next door, but to no emotional avail. Henry is trapped in this darkened, stage-like box, wet, alone, uncomfortable, unable to sleep. Eventually, the lady in the radiator (Laurel Near) becomes more and more real to him; she sings a song about Heaven, and stomps on the elongated worm creatures that may or may not represent his anxieties. The film climaxes in a horrid act of violence, followed by a vision of what might be Heaven.
The film has extended segments without any dialogue at all, and the soundtrack is nothing but moaning machines, hissing radiators, grinding unseen gears, with maybe a few half-heard Fats Waller pieces drifting through the walls. Everything is dark, dreary, awful. It’s the Platonic ideal of the worst form of city dwelling. No crime, no drugs, no exterior threats. Just the small urban box you’ve imprisoned yourself inside of, and your mounting disassociation with reality. It’s the nightmare you have before you move to a big city. It is, as David Lynch described it, a dream of dark and troubling things.
This is why ERASERHEAD is the most frightening film of the 1970s, and perhaps one of the scariest of all time. It is a nightmare. We are looking directly and unblinkingly into a nightmare, unchanged by story, unfettered by logic, unattached to reality. ERASERHEAD is pure. It strips away all the unnecessary garbage that most people associate with cinema and storytelling, and gives us the surreal directness of a genuine night terror. Half of the time, you’re never sure if Henry is living in “reality,” having a dream, or having a dream within his dream. This is not a world with a ground. This is the void of space, where every direction could be up, and every direction leads to terrifying, prison-like oblivion.
What is ERASERHEAD really about? Lynch has deliberately been no help. He feels that the film is complete, and he has staunchly refused to provide commentary as to the “meaning” of the film. He feels if you need a filmmaker tot tell you the meaning, then they wouldn’t have made the film. He has even gone so far as to say that ERASERHEAD is not a work of surrealism, as surrealism is predicated on and unspoken one-to-one representational image replacement game. ERASERHEAD, he says, is not an academic’s game of symbols and logical interpretation. ERASERHEAD is, Lynch says, the ultimate exercise in WYSIWYG. ERASERHEAD is about exactly what you see it’s about.
No film will be as bracing, as odd, as unsettling as ERASERHEAD. It’s exhilarating, even when you feel like you’re suffocating. It inspires as much awe as quizzical confusion. It leaves you in a state of chaotic unbalance. And that, I think, was the idea. To make you feel like you just woke up from a colorless nightmare of monsters, tiny apartments, and botched marriages. To see yourself as a headless goon, and that your head may be used for insidious industrial purposes. It’s a miasma of fear. It is awesome.