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Eraserhead
1976 (2002) - David Lynch (Absurda)

review by Rob Hale of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Eraserhead

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/A

Specs and Features

89 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), custom box packaging, Stories documentary (85 mins, 4x3, English DD 2.0), theatrical trailer, 18-page booklet, animated film-themed menu screens with sound and music, no chapters, language: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none

Eraserhead is just one of those films that you have to see to believe. Walking an extremely fine line between high-art and high-annoyance, it is the uber-Lynch film (and, quite fittingly, his first feature). It's all here: the excessive emotional responses, deafening silence, non-sequiters and more character quirks than you can shake a stick at - you know, stuff that the whole family can enjoy. Eraserhead is a nightmare through and through. It can be described as atmospheric, creepy, and alienating, but what seems frequently overlooked is the all too human core. Ultimately a film about parenthood, Eraserhead deals with the often contradictory emotions that surface with the birth of a child. Think of it as a male-oriented, postpartum depression story. Of course, this is just one interpretation...

A brief synopsis is probably called for here, although it will probably leave much to be desired since this is such a simple story told in an extremely complicated way. Jack (John) Nance plays Henry Spencer, the film's main character, a quiet and reserved man who seems somehow displaced in the world he inhabits. His girlfriend, Mary, invites him over to dinner where he is confronted by her mother about Mary's pregnancy. Soon after a baby is born, a very deformed baby that drives the couple completely batty. Eventually Mary, unable to take it anymore, leaves and Harry is left alone to care for the child. Of course this is David Lynch we're talking about, so nearly every shot of the film will raise an eyebrow, and more questions are raised than answered. But isn't that the whole point? The film is an experience, not just a story, and as an experience there really isn't anything in the film world (outside of the avant garde) that comes close to the sensory overload that this film manages. Some of Lynch's other works come close, but even he seems to have difficulty topping this one.

Performances all around are about what you'd expect from what is essentially a student film (the film was apparently made with one foot in the AFI and one foot out, but more on that later). Still, there's nothing amazing here with the possible exception of Nance, who would spend the rest of his career in the shadow of this character - at least until Twin Peaks. Technically, the film truly shines. The low-budget nature of the film does show, but visually and aurally the film is still amazing. Filmed in black and white, Eraserhead is filled with looming shadows and a general ickiness that is perfectly fitting to the film's emotional weight. The sound design is even more amazing; the film is nearly silent (it's a good 15 minutes before the first words are spoken, and they are used sparingly from there on out) and basically scoreless (at least in any traditional sense). What is left is the dirge of machinery, radiators, and other industrial horrors, as well as the screaming of the child. It all puts the viewer on edge in a way that mimics the effect that the screaming child has on Henry and Mary, except we only have to deal with it for 90 minutes. There is one song as well, In Heaven, which is sung by the Lady in the Radiator (don't ask, it won't help).

Eraserhead is currently only available on DVD from davidlynch.com at the rather hefty price of about $50 (which includes standard shipping). That seems like a lot to pay, until you actually receive the disc. Arriving in an ominous black shoebox (which opens to reveal bright red tissue paper, packing peanuts, and finally the rather enormous package for the disc itself), it is immediately obvious that the act of receiving the disc is intended to be part of the 'experience' of the film. This obviously inflates the price of the disc (we're talking about a lot of heavyweight black cardboard here) and the disc won't fit in your DVD rack, but the packaging alone is worth displaying. It all gets more complicated as you dive in, but it would be really difficult to explain that clearly. Needless to say, you've never seen packaging quite like this.

The content of the disc itself is even more amazing. I've never seen this film look anywhere near as good as it does here. This disc was pushed back several times because of the burden that restoring and transferring the film became, but it was all well worth the wait. The black and white image is incredibly dirt free and sharp as a razor. Shadow detail is also spot on and really shows off how rich this film is visually. The audio fares nearly as well, although don't go looking for a new surround mix. Sound is presented just as it was originally intended/constructed: stereo, cobbled together from various sources, not always in the best condition. Information on the disc says that the audio track is PCM, but my players all show it to be Dolby Digital 2.0. I'm not sure if this would make a huge difference in the long run though - we're not talking about a perfect soundtrack here. Regardless, the sound is exceptionally clean throughout, and everything from voices to the hiss of a radiator comes through distinctly. This is most likely the closest we'll come to Lynch's original intent and it's much better represented here than I have heard before.

Per usual with new Lynch discs, there are no chapter stops for the film, which doesn't really bother me all that much. The major supplement on the disc is an 85-minute documentary called Stories. Essentially an extended interview with Lynch (and Catherine Coulson via speakerphone) intercut with vintage photographs and behind-the-scenes footage, there is much to enjoy here. Lynch is an amiable speaker, with a kind demeanor and lots to tell - it's strange and rather unfortunate that he doesn't do this more often. Lynch's memory is sometimes fuzzy and yet amazingly detailed at the same time. Keep in mind that this a film that is not only over 25 years old, but was in production for somewhere in the ballpark of six years (including four years of on and off shooting). All of this is pretty well covered in Stories, as are numerous little anecdotes that can generously be considered off topic. Many larger questions are left unanswered, yet there are so many small details covered with child-like glee (such as the development of Jack Nance's hair and the procurement of a dead cat, which can be seen in a deleted scene that plays under the disc's menus) that it's hard to be disappointed. In fact, this is one of the most entertaining extras I've seen is a while, which is probably due, in no small part, to the fact that it doesn't undermine the main feature's effectiveness. Aside from this documentary, we also get a theatrical trailer and a booklet that contains photographs and other ephemera from the film's publicity and premiere.

For fans of Lynch and the film, this is a no-brainer... even with the steep price. The phenomenal restoration, transfer and documentary (not to mention a truly original film) easily offset the cost. Eraserhead is definitely not everyone's cup of tea though, so those of you who've never seen it should enter into this with a bit of caution. That said, it's definitely still a film that should be experienced.

Rob Hale
robhale@thedigitalbits.com


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