There’s an art to picking a movie for a Halloween movie night: it should be scary but not disturbing, it should have laughs, it should play well in a social setting, and it should leave people pleasantly spooked and not, ya know, traumatized. In other words, no matter how often your friend Lauren feels the need to look away, it should create more smiles than provocation. So here’s one you should definitely not use—unless you have a rarified group of friends, in which case, power to you: David Lynch’s 1977 debut Eraserhead.
Lynch’s place in “horror cinema” is a debate about genres I find fascinating. On one hand, films of his that sometimes get tagged with the label—like Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001)—have almost none of the plot tropes we commonly associate with horror. But on the other hand, they’re really fucking scary, and just as a comedy is supposed to make you laugh, isn’t that the point? Eraserhead, essentially the most famous student film ever made, is a repulsive feature-length nightmare, and it owes its midnight-hit reputation to downtown hipsters who dared each other to see it.
For the newcomers, the tune goes something likes this. In a toxic industrial city, a timid young man’s girlfriend gives premature birth to a mutant baby and then runs off, leaving him to care for the thing. As the baby laughs, mewls, and rots, the young man grapples with sordid attraction for his next door neighbor, has a nightmare in which his head is cracked open and his brains are used to make erasers, and daydreams about crawling inside his apartment radiator where a woman with swollen cheeks assures him that “in Heaven, everything is fine”.
In short, it’s a film that’s almost impossible to spoil. You could describe Eraserhead shot for shot to someone, and then when they sit down to watch it, the irrational terror would be undiminished: Lynch is a master of ideas that don’t “make sense” but somehow strike directly into the subconscious. That much I expected the first time I watched it. But what’s even more surprising, for such a low-budget production, is the film’s utter control of technique, the perfect completeness of its imaginary universe, the moments of bizarre humor, and the way that even though its setting is through the looking glass, it feels uniquely American.
Just tread carefully. Its imagery will be superimposed over everything you look at for at least a day or two.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.