Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
Regarding Henry
A fond recollection and region 0 DVD review of David Lynch's ERASERHEAD by Slarek
 
Part 1: The Preamble – Where Your Nightmares End

 

All the nightmares came today, and it looks as though they're here to stay.
David Bowie – 'Oh! You Pretty Things'


For every film fan, every would-be film-maker, there are cinematic experiences that are genuinely life-changing. They tend to come early on in our love-affair with film, when we get our first glimpses of what lies beyond the fare offered by the local cinemas or TV. Of course, I'm talking about a time when we did not have access to films on video, DVD or specialist satellite movie channels, when to see a non-mainstream movie usually meant travelling to the nearest big city and hunting out the film clubs and independent cinemas.

I was at film school when I first began to really expand my experience of the true possibilities offered by cinema. I was lucky in this respect – the school itself screened a variety of films as part of a once-a-week evening class that only four of us ever attended, works from acknowledged masters like Josef von Sternberg to the extremes of experimental cinema. In addition to this there was an Art Centre cinema just a short train ride away, at which splendid double-bills would regularly play. In the holidays I worked in London just ten minutes walk from the National Film Theatre, enabling me to pop in after work and catch whatever was playing. Cinematically speaking, these were great times.

But my favourite London film hangout was always The Scala cinema, and that's back in the days when it was in Tottenham Street, before it was relocated to Kings Cross after their building was taken over by the newly launched Channel 4. The Scala ran different double-bills every day, GREAT double-bills, with the emphasis on cult cinema from the present and past. Just occasionally they would put the double features on hold to run a single film for a several days in a row, or in exceptional cases for a few weeks. Which brings us nicely to Eraserhead.

I have to admit was intrigued from the moment I heard that title. I mean, Taxi Driver at least gave you a clue what to expect, but what the hell did Eraserhead mean? Words started appearing in reviews, words like 'surreal' and 'nightmare' and 'original'. And then there were the images, black-and-white promotional stills that looked like no other I'd ever laid eyes on. Discussions were taking place about the notorious 'baby', about the woman who sang from inside a radiator, about the lead character's electric shock hairdo. But for a film that clearly leaned towards the experimental, it was prompting some unexpected reviews. The populist Films Illustrated, for example, really liked it. The more highbrow Films & Filming, however, did not. It was only the following month, when the same reviewer was laying into Phantasm (another favourite of mine), that he confessed that his hostility towards Eraserhead was due in no small part to his discomfort at the idea of someone digging around in his nightmares and throwing them up on screen. Now I was really hooked.

The following weekend I went off to London and bought my ticket and descended into the darkness. The Scala was like that in those golden days – the cinema was in the basement and at its rear was a corridor that led to a café-bar, a corridor with a window on its wall that allowed you to catch a glimpse of the film that was playing before you went in to watch it. Catching even a few frames of Eraserhead would stop you in your tracks, but still not prepare you for what was to follow.

You have to remember that back when it was first shown there was little to prepare the viewer for what they were about to experience. Those coming to the film from a modern perspective have Lynch's subsequent work to train themselves up on (start at The Elephant Man and it's sinister dream sequences, trip through Twin Peaks, immerse yourself in Blue Velvet and try to get your head round Lost Highway and you'll be about ready). Back in 1979, when the film hit the UK, we had only the back-catalogues of Luis Buñuel and Lindsay Anderson to work from, and both directors were by then in their twilight years – Buñuel had already made his final film, Cet obscur objet du désir, and Anderson was just three years away from his last major flirt with social surrealism in Britainnia Hospital. To really get yourself in the mood you had to go right back to 1928 and Buñuel and Dali's seminal surrealist short, Un Chien Andalou. I was very familiar with that film, but I was still thoroughly caught out by Eraserhead.

I remember emerging from the Scala basement in a daze and being disproportionately relieved to discover that the real world was still bathed in daylight. But even before I reached the front door I'd done an about-face and was back at the box office to ask how much longer the film was screening for. I knew I couldn't wait a week, so skipped some classes and made my way back to London a few days later, and again a few days after that. It was all I could talk about, to the extent that the very mention of the word 'Eraserhead' would prompt instant groans from even my closest and most tolerant friends.

I eventually convinced the manager of the local Arts Centre cinema that he should run it for a week and cajoled everyone I knew into going to see it. This is the fatal flaw of any obsession – so caught up was I in the film's dark spell that I had utterly failed to realise what later seemed obvious, that a film such as this was always going to divide opinion and might even prompt genuinely hostile reactions. I was to learn that lesson repeatedly the week the film had its local screening, during which I was called a number of names, had angry judgements made about my taste in film and a number of enquiries about my mental health. One of my fellow students felt physically ill after the screening, only to open his fridge when he got home to find that his flatmate had laid out the ingredients for a rabbit stew. You'd be amazed how much a skinned rabbit looks like the Eraserhead baby. It was three days before he ate another meal. One of my lecturers told me that he didn't know if it was the best film he had ever seen or the worst. It was, he freely acknowledged, a brilliantly made work, but he did not believe any film should have such a bleak view of the world. Remember that comment, I'll be coming back to it. Perhaps most painful for someone so positively affected by the film were the two screenings I attended that prompted outraged vocal reactions from the audience – I mean, some people hated it, and with a passion that genuinely rattled me. One particularly pissed-off woman emerged from the cinema to be greeted by her children, who had found other things to do while mummy went to see a film that was accurately but unhelpfully described on the poster as 'the most original horror movie in years'. "Was it good?" they asked. "No!" she spat back, "It was AWFUL!"

But here and there I began encountering people who, when you mentioned the title, would widen their eyes, let their jaw drop a little and lean forward to kick off a discussion that could go on for hours. This is the very essence of cult cinema, a film that develops a passionate following in spite of box-office performance or the disdain of the many. A few years later I took a friend who had been bowled over by Lynch's most unexpected second feature, The Elephant Man, to see it.* At the film's conclusion he fell of his seat, stared wildly at the ceiling and screamed, "Has it gone away yet??" That very afternoon he was sitting at home with a wooden board and a large lump of clay, making a model of the Eraserhead baby. The cult had grown again, just a bit. Over time it would continue to do so and turn up in the most unexpected places, as a lyric on a aong by The Clash, as an insult from a cop in House Party, and so on. It has found fans both expected and surprising, with John Waters actively promoting it on its release and Stanley Kubrick once inviting some guys from Lucas Films back to his house to watch it, describing it at the time as his favourite film.

It remains as divisive a movie as it ever was, but also, I would submit, as original and exciting as when it first screened, in part because no other bugger has ever tried to emulate it. Even Lynch himself has never again gone this deep into the avant garde, at least in feature form, although Lost Highway certainly swims in similar waters and his one-minute contribution to the 1996 Lumière and Company is even more abstract and every bit as artistically thrilling.

But what's that? You haven't seen Eraserhead? You've never heard of it? Well in either case, it's time you were introduced to the dark, bizarre world of Henry Spencer...

 


 


* It was on a double-bill with Tod Browning's astonishing Freaks, a mind-fuck if ever there was one.

Scala Double Bills
Listed below is a small selection of some of the great double-bills screened at the Scala Cinema, London, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The War Game / Punishment Park
Pépé Le Moko / La Bête humaine
Death in Venice / The Servent
Monkey Business / Roxie Hart
Eraerhead / Freaks
The Wild Angels / The Trip
Un Chien Anadalou / L'Age D'Or
Bride of Frankenstein / The Island of Lost Souls
Belle de jour / Simon of the Desert
Big Wednesday / Lords of Flatbush
Pink Flamingos / Female Trouble
Throne of Blood / Rashamon
Raging Bull / New York, New York
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman / Radio On
The Tin Drum / The Tenant
MacBeth / Repulsion
The Thirty-Nine Steps / The Lady Vanishes
Eraserhead / The Crazies
Inserts / Carrie
Peeping Tom / Performance
Forty Guns / Pickup on South Street
Blood of a Poet / Beauty and the Beast
Ita Came from Outer Space / The Creature from the Black Lagoon (both in 3D!)
The Devils / Altered States
Z / State of Seige
If / The Warriors
The Enigma of Kasper Hauser / Aguirre Wrath of God
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre / Communion
Grey Gardens / Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

See all of Slarek's reviews