Having recently acquired an out-of-print copy of Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch, 1977) on DVD, I figured I’d revisit it during my chronological pass through 1970s cinema this month. I hadn’t seen Eraserhead since 2004, and it seems even more brilliant and horrifying than I remember it—perhaps Lynch’s most id-driven movie. It also struck me as perhaps one of his funniest, keeping in mind, of course, that humor in Lynch’s films is not exactly the stuff of, say, Ernst Lubitsch. Nevertheless, Eraserhead is funny. Consider the look on Henry Spencer’s (Jack Nance) face when Mrs. X accuses him of having slept with her daughter, then begins…kissing his neck? Licking him? It’s unclear (see above). Or the catatonic grandmother who sits stone-faced in a chair by the stove and whose unmoving hands are made to toss a bowl of salad by Mrs. X. There’s also a bizarre gag in which Mary (Charlotte Stewart) decides in the middle of the night that she’s moving back in with her parents leaving Henry to take care of their monstrous worm-like infant; she kneels down at the foot of the bed and struggles rhythmically for about fifteen seconds, the bed jerking back and forth, until finally we realize that she’s been trying to pull her suitcase out from underneath. It’s a disarmingly funny touch because (as is not often the case in other Lynch films) the strange is suddenly revealed to have a more or less ordinary explanation; we’ve gone from a state of confused tension to one of strange, dazed laughter.
So often in Eraserhead the comic is just one beat off from the terrifying, and vice versa. Nearly all of the early scenes in the film are twisted variations of scenes we’ve watched a hundred times before in old movies and TV sitcoms: a marital squabble, a nervous boyfriend being grilled by his in-laws, his fear of carving up meat at the dinner table in front of the girlfriend’s parents. In the scene with Mary’s parents, Lynch turns familiar bits of small talk (Mary’s mother: “Mary tells me you’re a very nice fellow”; Mary’s father, entering from the kitchen: “I thought I heard a stranger!”) and stretches them out, making them sound hostile and loaded. Later, when the baby falls ill after Mary leaves, Henry is forced to try and nurse it; we see him sitting expressionlessly by its side while a humidifier puffs and the baby breathes laboriously. With perfect comic timing, it starts crying every time Henry tries to leave the room. The sick baby hilariously left in the care of the incompetent new father: it’s a set-up that hasn’t been funny since the silent era, and yet it’s made creepily funny within the context of Lynch’s nightmare universe where the baby looks like a skinned calf, its head dotted with pustules that look like the eyes of a potato, and the in-law’s house is sitting outside some weird industrial furnace, and the meat that's being carved starts gushing blood, and the love nest of the newlyweds is like some vision of 1940s middle-class hell.