Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'Eraserhead'

Eraserhead has been streaming on Hulu as a member of the Criterion Collection for two years, which means excited speculation that Criterion might give it a proper home-media release has also been circulating for years. The ultimate cult movie meets the finest video-distribution company to achieve cult status of its own. That is a relationship much happier than Henry Spencer and Mary X’s.

Criterion’s presentation of Eraserhead is almost all good news for those of us who’ve been sitting tight for the last couple of years. The lossless audio and 4K visual upgrades of this new release are stunning. Lynch and Alan Splet’s unusually alive (and constant) sound design rumbles the floor tiles yet still retains its unique timbre in which voices almost sound as if they’re transmitting from some old timey radio broadcast. Contrast is totally effective despite the film’s deliberately dark palate and there is not a blemish to be seen. The deep blacks never looked so velvety, the industrial greys never so brooding, the sudden shocks of white never so headlight blinding.

On the extras front Lynch’s feature-length “Eraserhead Stories” interview that appeared on the old DVD is still present. Criterion supplements it with a half-hour of new interviews featuring Charlotte Stewart (Mary X), Judith Ann Roberts (The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall), Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, and Assistant Director/Log Lady Catherine Coulson. This is a really nice companion piece to “Eraserhead Stories”, offering other perspectives of the film’s making and impact. We learn how Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon was integral to the unique look of Eraserhead and get teasing peeks at Lynch’s script and storyboard. But for me the biggest revelation was seeing Judith Ann Roberts today—I had no idea that was her in the most recent season of “Orange Is the New Black”!

Criterion also digs up about forty minutes of vintage interview footage with members of the cast and crew, one of which finds Lynch tooling around LA with Jack Nance and basically behaving exactly like Agent Cooper a year before the duo made “Twin Peaks”. We also get the Eraserhead-reunion segment of Toby Keeler’s wonderful 1997 documentary Pretty As a Picture: The Art of David Lynch, and the Eraserhead chapter from Chris Rodley’s absolutely essential Lynch on Lynch book in the booklet.

Finally Criterion delivers what may be the most tremendous bonus feature in its entire collection: five of the short films included on the 2002 DVD The Short Films of David Lynch. A couple of these pieces are negligible. “Six Men Getting Sick”, a film intended to be projected on sculpture, loses something when deprived of its unique presentation, and “The Amputee” remains little more than an amusing experiment with different video stocks. However, the terrifying/mesmerizing ultra-minis “The Alphabet” and “Premonitions Following an Evil Deed” and the beautiful, poignant, and uncommonly resourceful “The Grandmother” prove Lynch is just as much a master of short forms as he is of long ones. These shorts appear in 2K restorations and the ages and presentations of each film is sometimes a factor. “Six Men” and “The Alphabet” both have their shares of scratches and spots, though the images and colors have never looked so good on home video. “The Amputee” never looked good, and it still doesn’t. Fortunately, the best film in the bunch—and one of Lynch’s best films, period— “The Grandmother”, is the most well maintained on all accounts. Its spare use of color is finally as vivid as Lynch intended it to be (and finally, the pee stain on the little boy’s bed looks more pee-yellow than orange juice-orange). Unfortunately, there is one absentee from the Short Films DVD, the slight but enjoyably goofy “Cowboy and the Frenchman”, which apparently could not be included because of rights issues.

Eraserhead is my favorite movie, and I’m thrilled with this new disc. It looks and sounds fabulous and the bonus features are a dream. This blu-ray is the film’s ultimate presentation.

Get the Criterion edition of Eraserhead on here:

As for the film, here’s what I had to say about Eraserhead in Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies:

David Lynch emerged from the world of painting and sculpture, and his early short films are avant-garde extensions of the abstract visual arts. So is his debut feature, Eraserhead, yet many have categorized the film as horror because its dark, dank, black and white cinematography recalls early horrors from Nosferatu to Night of the Hunter, its images are consistently nightmarish and occasionally gory, and its baby is one of cinema’s most disturbing monsters. The film’s shadowy composition, marionette-like acting, surrealism, unashamed emotiveness, and absurd humor are reminiscent of Lynch’s fellow avant gardists Buñuel and Cocteau. Eraserhead is most accurately viewed as a genre of one. Mel Brooks famously declared David Lynch “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” and Eraserhead barely resembles a product of Earth. It’s certainly tough to place as a film made in 1970s Hollywood. With a bare minimum of dialogue (“Oh, you are sick!”), Eraserhead has the flavor of a silent film (the charmingly inarticulate Lynch has a notorious distrust of language; his first short “The Alphabet” was nothing less than a nightmare about learning letters). However, sound plays a key role: the clanging of Henry Spencer’s industrial landscape, the Fats Waller records he plays on his little turntable, the hissing of his radiator, the mewling of his mutant baby. Ah, the baby. Lynch wisely refuses to reveal how he made it (one of the most popular theories is that it’s some kind of puppet fashioned from a calf fetus!), but its symbolic significance is not as difficult to decode. Lynch had recently discovered his wife was pregnant, and his fears about first-time fatherhood can be felt in every sickening roll of the baby’s eyes, every loll of its swollen tongue, every snicker it emits at its father’s expense. Yet it might also be erroneous to view the baby as a clear-cut stand-in for Lynch’s daughter, as it also functions as the embodiment of Henry’s apparent self-loathing. When the odd little lady living in his radiator assures him that “In heaven everything is fine,” she may not be impelling Henry toward suicide as much as telling him to uproot his own feelings of anger and self-loathing— something Lynch, himself, was only just learning to do via transcendental meditation. Therefore it isn’t surprising that Lynch views Eraserhead as his most spiritual film, but for the many who fixate on the grotesque baby—and fail to see the humor in a tiny, bleeding chicken—it is most easily digested as a horror film. Regardless of whether or not one chooses to box in the picture, it remains a completely unique experience percolating with stark beauty, huge laughs (the dinner party is a mini-masterpiece of uncomfortable comedy), a deeply poignant performance from Jack Nance as Henry, and moments of breathtaking transcendence. A perfect film.
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