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A few years ago Anchor Bay/Starz sent me a disc to review; ‘Midnight Movies-From Margin to Mainstream.' It was one of the best documentaries covering the phenomenon known, apparently, as the midnight movie. These were flicks that were considered to Avant guard to be commercially successful in a traditional theater. Growing up in Brooklyn much of my nascent love for cinema was nurtured by taking the LL train into Manhattan to Times Square or Greenwich Village to catch a movie. While Times Square educated me about Grind House films, it was the little neighborhood theaters in the Village that opened my eyes to the most bizarre fringes of independent cinema. Recently I revisited that documentary with my brother, and it reignited my fascination with midnight movies, and I realized in my collection resided all six of the movies examined by the documentary. This coincided with the Blu-ray release of one of the stranger movies on that list and the movie under consideration here, ‘Eraserhead.'

Long before David Lynch bewildered television viewers with ‘Twin Peaks’ or brought odd dreamlike movies like ‘Mulholland Dr.’ to the Cineplex, his first feature film was ‘Eraserhead.' Initially intended for the art house circuit, it found its true and lasting place in the NYC midnight movie venues. The surrealism that is at the core of this film endows a timeless quality to it; it is as bizarre today as it was when it initially released 1977. The career of one of the world’s most unusual and visually progressive filmmakers took flight with this black and white feature that brought us out in the dead of night to experience. Of all the innovations my generation is drawn to filmmaking the midnight movie will remain one of the most notable; providing an outlet for films condemned by many as misfits but in actuality innovative; keeping the cinema viable as a means of artistic expression. In 2004, the film was preserved in the National Film Registry, maintained by the United States Library of Congress.

An entity known as ‘The Man in the Planet’ (Jack Fisk) is show in his native location operating a machine via a set of levers. The head of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) floats in the sky, his mouth opening. From that opening emerges a creature shaped like a sperm which floats out into the void. At this point in the theater back in New York City, a particular odor began to permeate the local atmosphere as lighters flicker around the venue. The film shifts to a landscape that could be any in an industrialized country. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is walking home from grocery shopping. As he prepares to enter his apartment, he was approached by the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts). Lynch didn’t waste a lot of time with names especially when their function in the story is easily described. His girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) has invited him to dinner with her family. As he placed his bag of groceries down, we notice it contained soil and dead plants. The odor in the theater becomes stronger and remains at that level for the duration of the film.

At the diner Henry chats with Mary’s mother (Jeanne Bates) as her verbose father (Allen Joseph) carves the chicken he prepared. Apparently still alive it moves as cut and squirts blood. Later Mrs. X corners Henry trying inappropriately to kiss him before announcing Mary had hidden child; Henry was unaware she was pregnant or gave birth. The parents insist they now must marry.

Moving into Henry’s minuscule one room flat the new parents try their best to adapt to the odd circumstances. The child has a face akin to the sperm-like creature previously shown and constantly cries. It refuses the food offered, develops painful lesions crying without let up. The incessant noise finally gets to Mary who leaves Henry alone with the inconsolable child. Henry starts to experience visions of the ‘Man on the Planet ‘and the ‘Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near). She sings while tramping minuscule replicas of the infant. Henry then has sex with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall which precedes another vision where his head falls from the sky breaking open upon striking the pavement. A boy (Thomas Coulson) happens upon it and takes it to a pencil factory. There the head and its contents were to be turned into the eraser. After this, the film starts to get weird.

It took over five years for Lynch to complete this movie. One well knows a bit of trivia that the scene of Henry entering his apartment had a delay of over a year between opening the door and stepping through it. Funding was tight and sporadic which forced several halts to principle photography. A significant amount of the funding for the estimated $7 million budget donated by Jack Fisk and his wife actress Sissy Spacek. Nance's wife worked as a waitress adding her income to the cause. A notable portion of the budget used for the creation of the puppet used to play the deformed child. Lynch was personally behind much of the practical special effects using the experience in his later films, ‘The Elephant Man’ and ‘Dune.' The man may be certifiably strange but undeniably a multi-faceted genius.

The photography of this movie is among the best examples of how to use black and white film as a unique medium for filmmaking. Some younger audiences may deride the lack of color due to their over technology dependent upbringing. The utilization of shadow playing against the lighting created sharp lines of demarcation and graduated shades of gray magnificently deployed. Lynch utilized the grain of the images to provide distinct textures to the background and characters. The famous hair sported by Henry juts up from his scalp defying gravity and defusing the light that trickles through the morass. Every single frame is crafted to exploit the image maximizing the often disorienting effect on the audience.

What Lynch so perfectly achieved in this piece was to construct a film that lies outside our traditional conception of not only filmmaking but time and space itself. This integral merger of style and theme; for Lynch this technique would become his trademark; no distinction between the stories as told and the stylistic means of conveying it. The medium has become the message. The surrealistic story inexplicably entwined with the striking use of visual content. Lynch takes the audience out of our comfort zone embedding us in a disturbing world of his design. As his first feature-length movie, this work stands as the progenitor for the style that defined his career. There is a UK release in Blu-ray that will play on Region A machines. If possible get that edition has a UPC of 4042564135848.

New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director David Lynch, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack

bullet"'Eraserhead' Stories", a 2001 documentary by Lynch on the making of the film
bulletNew 2K digital restorations of six short films by Lynch: "Six Men Getting Sick" (1967), "The Alphabet" (1968), "The Grandmother" (1970), "The Amputee, Version 1" and "Version 2" (1974), and "Premonitions Following and Evil Deed" (1995), All with video introductions by Lynch
bulletNew documentary featuring interviews with actor Charlotte Stewart and Judith Roberts, assistant to the director Catherine Coulson, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes
bulletArchival interviews with Lynch and members of the cast and crew
bulletPLUS: A booklet featuring an interview with Lynch from filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley's 1997 book "Lynch on Lynch"

Posted 07/21/2013        Posted 06/26/2015    12/19/2016

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