Sunday, July 25, 2010

February 13, 2009: The Psychobabble Double-Feature: ‘Bride ofFrankenstein’ and ‘Eraserhead’

One of the earmarks of a truly great movie is that it can be watched over and over again while offering something new with each viewing. Last night I was watching my favorite movie, David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), which I’ve seen so many times that I’ve basically stopped thinking that it might continue doling out nuggets of newness. So naïve. What struck me with this latest viewing are the numerous similarities it shares with another of my favorites, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Hear me out. Yes, the films were made forty years apart and for completely different kinds of audiences (Whale’s film was aimed at mainstream, blockbuster-attending crowds; Lynch’s at tiny Midnight Movie audiences), and whether or not Lynch ever even saw Bride is highly questionable. According to Greg Olsen’s biography David Lynch: Beautiful Dark, Lynch spent a good portion of his youth attending screenings of B-horror flicks like The Fly, yet he professes to not be a fan of the genre. Still the influence of period horror films is unmistakable in much of his work, from The Alphabet (1968) to Blue Velvet (1986) to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) to Inland Empire (2006). Lynch also says that he is not a film buff and hasn’t seen most of the essential classics. In any event, whether or not Eraserhead was directly influenced by Bride of Frankenstein (even I think that’s a stretch), the thematic resemblances are uncanny.

Both films:

  • feature lead characters named Henry (Frankenstein and Spencer) (OK, that one is pretty superficial, but…)

  • feature outsiders (the Henrys) making uneasy transitions into married life and fatherhood.

  • feature monstrous, somewhat malicious children (the Frankenstein Monster and the Baby), who clash with fathers (the Henrys again) that regret having created them.

  • feature sympathetic, heavily put-upon characters (the Frankenstein Monster and Henry Spencer) who want nothing more than to be loved, but are also capable of murder.

  • feature characters who embody an odd blend of grotesqueness and glamour (the Bride and The Lady in the Radiator).

  • feature acts of infidelity both literal (Henry Spencer and The Beautiful Girl Across to Hall) and symbolic (Henry Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius).

  • feature some of the most memorable movie monsters (the Frankenstein Monster, the Bride, the Baby) of their respective eras, two of which (the Bride and the Baby) appear in swaddling.

  • draw parallels between electricity, life, and death. Bride of Frankenstein associates electricity with the creation of a new life that will lead to death (electrical gizmos bring life to the Bride, whose rejection of the Monster causes him to destroy both them and Dr. Pretorius); Eraserhead connects electricity with a death that results in refreshed life (Henry Spencer's killing of the Baby and, essentially, himself, causes the electricity in his apartment to go haywire, but with his death, Henry is finally united with his idealized love figure, The Lady in the Radiator).

  • make evocative use of deep, shadowy, black and white cinematography.

  • contain extraordinary special effects that couldn’t be bested with modern digital techniques.

  • are often ostensibly considered to be horror movies, although their incorporations of ironic comedy, melodrama, science-fiction elements, and avant garde experimentation essentially make them genre-less.

  • have title characters with really tall hair.

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