Eraserhead: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

September 3, 2014 12 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Ghost in the Machine?

Plot: What’s it about?

I’m no stranger to the films of David Lynch and after seeing most all of them, I was surprised when Criterion announced they’d put out his first feature film – Eraserhead. Admittedly I’d never seen the film, but was familiar with the iconic poster art. Lynch is a true visionary and artist if there ever was one. He’s been proclaimed as brilliant, mad, pretentious and pretty much everything in between. I find it odd (or surprisingly fitting) that his most mainstream work, Dune, is widely regarded as his worst film. I won’t get into that debate, but after seeing movies like Lost Highway, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive nothing this guy should surprise anyone. Lynch has made quite a name for himself over the last several decades, but everyone has to start somewhere and with a  grant from the AFI (American Film Institute) Lynch was able to make his feature film. Ok, look, I can prattle on didactically about the man, myth and legend but I’d rather delve into what the movie is all about. If only that were easier said (or typed) than done…

Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a seemingly decent man. While on vacation he walks with his hair looking like something out of Bride of Frankenstein and looking more like a modern-day Charlie Chaplin. Henry is in search of love and has found it in Mary (Charlotte Stewart) with whom he learns he may or may not have a child. The “child” looks more like the alien from Alien and bears no resemblance to a human in any way, shape or form. But it cries. A lot.

And that’s about where the movie stopped making sense.

As we follow Henry we’re treated to a series of surreal experiences, eccentric neighbors who come and go and the carving of the world’s smallest chicken. This non-linear narrative seems appropriate when you factor in that it’s a David Lynch film and, try as I might, I’ll need subsequent viewings to figure out all the nuances.  I found myself chuckling at several times during the film not because I found it humorous, but rather that it’s so bizarre my reaction was laughter. Is this what Lynch intended? I think we’ll never know. Henry goes about his day being literally kicked out of bed by Mary, explores a world within a radiator and has his head chopped off and sold to a factory that, you guessed it, puts erasers on the heads of pencils.

Eraserhead is one of those films that just has to be seen to be understood (or tried to be understood, anyway). I make no secret of it that I’ve only seen this once, but I’ll need to revisit it a few more times before I can fully grasp the depth of the film. It’s at times like this that I wish Lynch was a believer in commentary tracks, but I suppose someone as eccentric like him rather enjoys people piecing together what he’s trying to say in his films. I’m a fan of this myself, but sometimes a little direction can’t hurt, right? No matter your feelings on the film, the director or his other works there’s no denying that this is the one that started it all. Criterion has done a fine job with this disc and no doubt legions of Lynch fans will rejoice that he’s now a part of the Criterion family. Proceed at your own risk, but it’s well worth the reward.

Video: How’s it look?

As I mentioned above, I’d never seen the film until this Blu-ray edition arrived and therefore have no real basis of comparison regarding the video quality. I do know how near and dear Lynch holds this film and I know that when Criterion releases a title, they give it their full attention. Suffice it to say that this is the best the film has ever looked. The booklet has a bit more to say on this, but this transfer was personally supervised by David Lynch and thousands of instances of dirt, debris and jittering were removed giving us a beautiful 1.85:1 AVC HD image.  Shot in black and white there are some times where grain does dominate. But given that the film is nearly forty years old and is about as low budget as they come, I’ll give them a pass. Contrast is strong, blacks are dark and deep and detail is sharp. I’d imagine that when an alien, mutant baby is spewing forth what looks like mashed potatoes you’d want the image to be as clear as possible, no? I was impressed with the way this looked and I’m sure fans of the film will have little, if anything, to complain about.

Audio: How’s it sound?

There’s actually not a box I can check that’s labeled LPCM Stereo, but that’s what this disc’s audio track is. We’ll just call it stereo and I’m sure that’ll suffice. Having never “heard” the film before, I had no idea as what to expect, but I have to say that this stereo track is really rather robust. From the opening sequence we’re greeted with what I can only say is white noise and that’s followed up with some industrial-sounding bits that really set the tone for the film. There’s really not a spoken word of dialogue in the film for the first ten minutes or so and the rest of the vocals sound rich and crisp. There are times when I actually have to say this was…loud. Yes, really. According to the booklet, the original mono mix was re-mixed by Lynch to stereo in 1994 and they took that, removed any “unwanted” sounds for this mix for the Blu-ray. At any rate, it’s a top notch effort that exceeded my expectations.

Supplements: What are the extras?

This is the first David Lynch film that’s been released by Criterion and, as such, the bar was set pretty high (by both Lynch and Criterion). The film was previously available on standard DVD, though only via Lynch’s web site. Hopefully this paves the way for some other Lynch films on Criterion. There’s a lot of material to cover; let’s get started.

  • Short Films – In addition to the main feature itself being given a new 4K restoration, Lynch’s short films were also given a new 2K restoration for this Blu-ray.
      Six Men Getting Sick

      The Alphabet

      The Grandmother

      The Amputee

      Premonitions Following an Evil Deed

  • Supplements
      1977 – This appears to be a montage of scenes from the film.

      1979 – Director David Lynch and Cinematographer Frederick Elmes were interviewed by filmmaker Tom Christie for his television production class at UCLA. Interestingly the footage is shot at one of the early scenes in the film (where a shopping mall now is) and we’re treated to some footage of a dead, tar-covered cat (which didn’t make it into the film) among other things. He’s asked about some of the meaning of his film and gives his usual cryptic answers. It’s interesting to say the least.

      1982 – We see the trailer that preceded the film that was shown at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles. This, of course, isn’t your average trailer as Lynch thanks the theater for its support and is surrounded by no less than five Woody Woodpecker stuffed animals. Ok, moving on…

      1988 – Director David Lynch and star “Henry” (Jack Nance) take a drive to one of the shooting locations in the film. This was an excerpt from a French television program Cinema de notre temps, which aired five years later in 1993.

      1997 – I’m assuming to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, this footage features Lynch as well as actors Jack Nance and Charlotte Stewart as they revisit some of the locations at the AFI in Los Angeles. The interviews were conducted by Toby Keeler for his 1997 documentary Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch.

      2001 – The 85 minute documentary “Eraserhead” Stories, about the making of the film was made by Lynch in 2001. This is the most robust supplement on the disc and essentially tells us everything and anything we want or need to know about the film. It’s a very personal piece and it tells us that even 25 years after its release, how important it was to Lynch.

      2014 – New to this Criterion edition is a series of interviews with Director’s assistant Catherine Coulson as well as actors Charlotte Stewart, Judith Anna Roberts as well as Cinematographer Frederick Elmes. This is a pretty interesting feature as are most that Criterion does and we learn a bit of information on the eccentric David Lynch such as why does he wear two neck ties (and three while shooting). It’s a well-made piece and it’s nice to see some of the stars give their time and reflect back on their roles.

  • TV Calibration – Normally I’d think is pretentious, but Lynch actually has a point that most people’s televisions aren’t properly adjusted with correct contrast and color levels. In an expansion, we get a few test patterns so that the viewer can experience the film in its best form.
  • Illustrated Booklet – Criterion is known for their booklets, though I have to say that this one is one of the best-looking that I’ve seen. It’s 60+ pages and loaded with production photos and essays.

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