Eraserhead 40th anniversary: five films that haunt David Lynch’s nightmarish classic

It’s 40 years since David Lynch released his disturbing debut feature, Eraserhead. Which weird and wonderful cinematic inspirations might have gone into this strange brew?

Amy Simmons
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Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead (1977)

Infused with an intoxicating mood and tone, David Lynch’s debut masterwork brings together many of his now familiar tropes, where sounds and images, much like a dream, are scarcely decipherable. With a surrealist spirit, evoking early Luis Buñuel and the otherworldly films of Jean Cocteau, Eraserhead (1977) is a deeply personal film that disturbs as well as horrifies on an intensely physical and existential level.

Shot in icy black and white, and enhanced with a remarkably intricate, expressionistic soundtrack, Eraserhead follows mild-mannered Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who ekes out an unremarkable existence in a grimy industrial wasteland. Cohabiting in a squalid, one-room apartment with his anxious girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and their sickly, abnormal baby, the pair’s relationship soon deteriorates and Henry’s fantasies begin to transform the world around him.

Like a panic attack that strikes without warning, Eraserhead takes us on a twisted carousel ride through the human psyche and the troubled conditions of the soul. Balancing shock with lyricism and ghoulish humour, the film begins with an inscrutable prologue sequence in which a menacing, diseased man noisily cranks a cosmic lever. Later, a carved chicken haemorrhages profusely at an awkward family dinner, and a puffy-cheeked woman (Laurel Near) – dancing across a vaudeville stage from deep within the bowels of Henry’s radiator – assures him sweetly: “In heaven, everything is fine…”

And, of course, the limbless, squirming baby itself – less a bundle of joy than a monstrous, oozing emblem of parental dread – wails inconsolably on his bedside table. As the plot descends into a Kafkaesque nightmare, the lines between reality and hallucination rapidly begin to blur, as Henry enters through door after door of alternative perception. Troubling, seductive and intensely corporeal, Eraserhead is a film to be seen, to be absorbed and to be felt – and functions as possibly the purest distillation of Lynch’s work to date.

A Panicky Picnic (1909)

Director Segundo de Chomón

As writer Kelly Robinson has pointed out, Eraserhead’s grotesque and macabre imagery recalls the pioneering short films of Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón. An early adopter of stop-motion, Chomón’s work is filled with sequences that are intended to disgust. In his 1909 film A Panicky Picnic, surreal happenings prevent a group of friends from enjoying an alfresco lunch. Here, self-slicing sausages, rat-infested eggs and a cake is cut open to reveal an interior crawling with worms. Likewise, in Eraserhead’s infamous dinner scene, food is sexualised and fetishised, as a miniature roasted chicken spasms and gushes fluid over Henry’s plate. 

Un chien andalou (1929)

Directors Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí

Un chien andalou (1929)

The most direct comparison to Lynch’s Eraserhead can be found in some of the early work of Luis Buñuel. An essential masterpiece of the surrealist movement, Un chien andalou achieves an aggressively strange quality, unfettered from the constraints of reason and morality. Much like Buñuel’s audacious offering, Eraserhead deals with dubious voyeurism, alienation, sexual obsession and the palpable tension between a man and a woman enclosed in a small apartment.

The Blood of a Poet (1930)

Director Jean Cocteau

The Blood of a Poet (1930)

Debauched, rebellious and bursting with invention, the eerily symbolic cinema of artist and poet Jean Cocteau disturbs as much as it titillates. In The Blood of a Poet, a dreamlike series of events revolves around a young artist (Enrique Rivero) whose drawings initiate a string of inexplicable incidents: a statue comes to life, a mirror – symbolising the portal to his unconscious – leads through to a mysterious corridor, and a ritualistic suicide results in reincarnation. Like Eraserhead, Cocteau’s film is concerned with the power of metaphor and the struggle between the forces of life and death.

Carnival of Souls (1962) 

Director Herk Harvey

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Eraserhead pays homage to Herk Harvey’s micro-budget horror film Carnival of Souls in numerous ways, from its use of melancholy organ music to the naming of the main characters, Mary and Henry (Mary Henry was the name of the film’s heroine). Adopting a similar aesthetic, both films take place in a strange, decaying, industrial world that is at once dreamlike and highly reminiscent of the very real landscapes in America’s fading cities.

Film (1965)

Director Alan Schneider

Film (1965)

Eraserhead’s similarities with a cinema of alienation and decay are further demonstrated by the crumbling urban environment of this 20-minute, almost totally silent film written by Samuel Beckett. A true oddity, Film features Buster Keaton – referred to only as ‘O’ – scuttling past the bombed-out walls of an old factory, before, like Henry, he returns to a stifling, ramshackle apartment, surrounded by outmoded objects. Whether statements on voyeurism, on human consciousness or death, both Eraserhead and Film depict an existential landscape of estrangement and malaise that spills over into the characters.

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