Exhibiting an artistry and technical skill almost unique in low budget filmmaking – ERASERHEAD is shot in beautifully atmospheric black-and-white, enhanced with a remarkably intricate, expressionistic soundtrack – Lynch has structured the film in a series of almost circular movements, taking the viewer on detours which seem to lead back to our starting point – but not quite. Early in the film, Henry stares at the radiator in his room. A menacingly slow tracking shot moves along the base of the radiator, accompanied by a low, threatening hum and a harsh hissing of steam; sound and image attain an intensity which warns of some imminent event. But nothing happens. Yet later the radiator becomes increasingly prominent as the location of Henry’s vision of Heaven. Expectation is fulfilled, but in an unexpected way and displaced in time.
Later, after Mary has walked out, exhausted by the baby’s demands, Henry wakes in the night to find her shivering feverishly beside him. He stares at the wall and the camera passes into it; the wall becomes an alien landscape where a worm-like creature rises up to swallow the camera. We emerge from darkness to look back out of the wall at Henry. But Mary is no longer there.
Henry’s neighbour, having locked herself out, invites herself into Henry’s apartment. They embrace in a bed which is transformed into a pool of milky fluid into which the couple submerge. Henry now enters his Heaven for the first time and approaches the deformed woman who inhabits it. His head abruptly explodes from his shoulders and sinks into a pool of blood, emerging into daylight where a small boy grabs it and runs. The boy sells the head to a pencil factory where it is found to be made entirely of rubber. From here we find ourselves suddenly returned to Henry’s apartment where he lies alone, no sign of the neighbour.
In effect this is a kind of cinematic sleight-of-hand. Lynch diverts our attention and then alters a detail of the scene. But the distraction is far out of proportion with the slight change that he makes. What then are these detours? Simply strange, meaningless intrusions into the film’s world? But here either everything is real, or nothing is. We can discern no degrees of reality because there is no baseline to which we can point as rational. There can be no distinction between what really happens and what someone thinks is happening because here thought is instantaneously manifest as event. We find ourselves in ERASERHEAD in a kind of psychological quicksand, unable to find the correct footing, emotional or intellectual, from which to view the events we see. In fact, it seems that very little actually does happen in the film, although something momentous is always about to happen. Yet the cues we are given by the characters themselves indicate that this world is “normal”.
This gives the film a kind of humour like that of Beckett and other Twentieth Century absurdists, a humour arising from people behaving as if meaning exists in a meaningless world. Henry responds to his child as any doting father might – yet it is a strange reptilian thing, armless, legless, a head attached by a thin neck to a shapeless, bandage-wrapped body – not a human mutant but a perfectly formed something else.