WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
I became a die-hard David Lynch fan in 1986, soon after my second viewing of the strange and captivating Blue Velvet. In a way, that movie opened my eyes to the darker possibilities of storytelling—the mining of the subconscious, the delving into nightmare realms in a way that crawls beneath your skin and stays there for a while. Later, I rented the more commercially minded The Elephant Man and religiously viewed his television series Twin Peaks, embracing in both that unique Lynchian throb of menace. Today, I devour most everything the man produces, but strangely, until now, I had never seen his first feature-length film, Eraserhead.
So last night, in the company of a few peculiar friends, I shut off all the lights and opened up this gorgeous new Eraserhead set (which is available exclusively from David Lynch's official Web site at www.davidlynch.com). Although I had seen grainy snippets of the film before, here and there, I had virtually no idea what to expect from the disc I was inserting in my player. Almost immediately, ambient sound filled my home theater—the sound of industrial machinery and the deep hiss of hideous gases escaping grimy vents. Eraserhead took abrupt hold of my psyche.
To say Eraserhead is a surreal experience is something of an understatement. The film begins with an inscrutable prologue sequence in which a jittery, seemingly diseased man cranks a huge cosmic lever, and our eventual protagonist, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), floats in a void and vomits a large spermatozoa. Whereas most films tend to condense time through editing and storytelling techniques, Eraserhead expands time, and for the remainder of the film, we follow poor Henry through a remarkably odd series of drawn-out fragmented events. Socially stunted Henry, his hair a wild frizz atop his uncertain head, lives his days walking barren industrial landscapes to and from his tiny, dumpy apartment. A vaguely linear plotline develops when his voluptuous and somehow threatening neighbor informs him that Henry's girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), has invited him to dinner to meet her parents. Mary's family is only one step removed from Leatherface's lovable clan in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—an almost-dead granny inhabits the grungy kitchen; a brood of suckling puppies mewl against their mother's teats, foreshadowing Henry's plight; and tiny bleeding chickens are served for dinner. Worst, Mary's bipolar mom informs Henry that he has impregnated her daughter. Marriage and fatherhood and domesticity suddenly loom ahead of Henry—and it ain't a pretty sight.
At this point, as if it hasn't already done so, Eraserhead takes a wild leap out of the waking world and becomes a disorienting fever dream punctuated by symbolic episodes and horrific imagery. Henry and Mary's premature baby, now a permanent fixture atop his chest-of-drawers, whines nasally out of its monstrous face, and Henry finds himself helplessly escaping to a fantasy world located inside his space heater, where a facially deformed woman dances across a spotlit checkerboard floor and assures him sweetly, "In heaven, everything is fine..."
What I find most fascinating about Eraserhead is that many of Lynch's familiar stylistic tendencies and motifs are evident, foreshadowing his later work. I saw Twin Peaks loud and clear in the radiator-grill dream sequences. I saw The Elephant Man foreshadowed not only in the cinematography but also in the shadowy urban landscape and the blunt fascination with the repulsive. I saw Blue Velvet's Dorothy Vallens in Henry's sexually forward and irresistibly enticing neighbor. And of course, throughout Eraserhead, Lynch makes heavy use of perhaps his most disturbing trademark—ominous ambient sound, consistently scratching at the portion of your mind that manufactures nightmares. You watch Eraserhead, like most of Lynch's later work, with a deep sense of prickly dread.
I enthusiastically recommend Eraserhead, particularly if you're a fan of David Lynch's unique flavor of filmmaking. Even if you're not, this film is undeniably a landmark in weird cinema, and this beautiful and strange set is a collector's keeper.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
David Lynch personally undertook this gorgeous transfer of Eraserhead, apparently cleaning up the film frame by frame The result is a wonderful, film-like 1.85:1 anamorphic-widescreen effort. The film's black-and-white imagery pops cleanly from the screen. What most surprised me is that the source print is absolutely pristine. I detected only a very small number of flaws, and these only by searching very carefully. It's as if the film was made within the past few years as opposed to 26 years ago.
Detail is exceptional. Although I had never seen the complete film before this viewing, I had watched scenes here and there on VHS, and the level of detail on this DVD is a revelation. Background detail suffers only slightly from softness, but shadow detail is terrific. Black levels are deep, and the cinematography's tendency toward high-contrast shots comes across brilliantly and with no halos.
The only complaint I have is that I noticed occasional artifacting, particularly in the form of blocking and shimmering. Check out one of the opening scenes, in which Henry walks across a field in a long shot. Much of his surroundings are alive with compression artifacts. However, the artifacting seems to calm down as the movie plays on, and you're just left marveling at this exquisite effort. Also, and this is minor, I noticed some image instability in a few shots.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
Inside the impressive packaging is a cool little booklet that unfortunately contains some false information. According to some liner notes, the disc is supposed to contain an uncompressed PCM audio track. However, the soundtrack is actually a Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation. Perhaps the PCM idea was nixed at the last minute to make room for a long supplement (see below).
That decision is fine by me, because in no way was I disappointed by this audio track. Lynch's careful use of ambient sound effects, his ever-present nightmare throb, comes across as an almost tangible force. Here's where a good low-end presence is absolutely necessary, and the disc doesn't disappoint. Dialog (mostly ADR dubbed) seems clear and accurate, and the soundtrack's fidelity remains surprisingly intact. Sound is absolutely vital to Eraserhead, and this DVD's audio presentation is full and textured.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
What a cool package! Housed in a black, oversized cardboard box (similar in size to last year's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial gift set) are the single disc—somewhat tightly crammed into a stiff sleeve—and an 18-page booklet that contains production photos, sketches, an excerpt from Lynch's original story outline, and an essay about the film's restoration for DVD. Apparently, the reason for the box's title—Eraserhead DVD 2000—is that this set was intended for a 2000 release and simply delayed for three years while the already-printed packaging became outdated.
True to Lynch's style, the DVD offers no chapter stops. Frankly, with Eraserhead, I wouldn't have it any other way. The film is a waking nightmare that is best viewed with your full attention, with no interruptions or skipping around. The decision not to include a scene-selection menu is admirable.
The primary supplemental feature is an 85-minute interview with David Lynch titles Stories. Composed in full-frame, the interview consists mostly of Lynch in front of a microphone talking, but we also get behind-the-scenes photographs, archival footage, and other material, which fades in and out at relevant moments. The style of the piece isn't exactly dynamic or overtly entertaining, but I was engrossed by the discussion, which covered many aspects of the production, including the origins of the idea (much of which Lynch can't remember), the importance of his relationship with Alan Splet and the recording of the film's sound effects, stories from the set, and details about the theatrical release. Lynch gives credit where credit is due, acknowledging the contributions of the minute cast and crew. Catherine Coulson (Twin Peaks's Log Lady and Eraserhead crewmember) even chimes in via phone for her recollections. This is a terrific supplement that enriches the experience of the film.
You also get Eraserhead's Theatrical Trailer in anamorphic widescreen.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The big question is whether David Lynch's personally remastered DVD edition of Eraserhead is worth the $40 price tag, as well as what I've heard are exorbitant shipping costs. I can tell you with no reservations that I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this set. It looks terrific among my other DVDs (although most people will find it a difficult fit), and image/sound quality are quite nice. The included Lynch interview is a very satisfying supplement to an out-there film.