USA, 1976, 89 mins
Director: David Lynch

In his first film, Eraserhead, David Lynch created a world from which everything has been stripped away except for the anxiety at its heart. Henry Spencer tramps numbly across a ruined industrial landscape. He goes for dinner with his girlfriend Mary at the house of her parents, Mr and Mrs X. They eat small chickens which move and exude a mysterious slime when cut. Henry is compelled to marry Mary because she has given birth – but so prematurely that the hospital wasn’t even sure if the result was a baby.

The despair and frustration in the film’s subject accords somewhat with the circumstances of its production. The entry on Eraserhead in the second volume of Cult Movies says that it took a year to film and a year to edit. This sounds daunting enough but is nevertheless an understatement. According to Lynch’s own account, the film took five years to complete, from 1971 to 1976: ‘We shot straight for a year and then we were down for a whole year. Then we shot and did the editing and sound piecemeal for the remainder.’ The film looks as if it were set in a depressed industrial part of Detroit or Philadelphia but was in fact shot in the stables of an old mansion in Beverly Hills where Lynch was renting some rooms. During the day he delivered The Wall Street Journal (‘I had my route down to one hour’) and at night he shot Eraserhead.

Even ten years later, after the trauma of shooting Dune and in the throes of promoting a new picture, Lynch still speaks vividly of his first filmmaking experience: ‘It was extremely frustrating to hold on to everything for so long. I couldn’t do anything new because that wasn’t finished, I didn’t have anything to show anybody. So I just saw the world going by and tried to raise money and little by little I did it.’

Clearly, only a very unusual actor could have made himself available for such a period to play the leading role, but Lynch had the good fortune to find such a person in John Nance: ‘Jack is a strange actor anyway. Some people are what you call highly motivated and he is the exact reverse: zero motivation. He’s very content to stay at home, not even watching television, just sitting thinking in a chair, wearing his little slippers. So he was pretty happy. He just had to keep his haircut, he wore a little hat. But he did fine for the five years.’

If nothing else, however, the extreme length of shooting allowed Lynch to make sure everything in the film was right. There is a whole range of flaws that are traditionally associated with and excused in student or ‘underground’ films: poor lighting, echoing sound, clumsy acting, rickety sets, shaky camerawork. Eraserhead is not just without these faults; it is one of the major technical achievements of its decade. One is tempted to hail the film as a one-man, shoestring, nightmare version of Citizen Kane because of the vitality with which it uses every element available. For example, the careful use of sound, in particular the sound of some mysterious industrial process, is an integral part of the film. (Alan Splet, who collaborated with Lynch on sound for Eraserhead, has remained with him for all his subsequent films.)

Making Eraserhead, David Lynch had a level of control over every aspect of the filmmaking process that most directors, however successful, will never achieve. This is of far more than anecdotal interest in a consideration of Lynch’s career. The script is only one part of the finished movie – 22 pages for an 89-minute film (scripts usually work out at about a page per minute). Lynch speaks of the exhilaration he felt standing in the set of Mr and Mrs X’s apartment and realising that what he had pictured in his mind had been exactly recreated. And this control had immense implications for the film itself. The narrative is as much concerned with the industrial hum of the soundtrack, the metamorphic worms, the terrifying machines, as it is with what is said. This move beyond the mere words and plot forms a fruitful and fascinating struggle right through Lynch’s work.

Such an approach can prove difficult for critics, and when Eraserhead appeared in Britain in 1979 there was a general unwillingness to provide exegesis. As Paul Taylor prudently concluded in his review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, it was ‘a movie to be experienced rather than explained’. However what is needed for Eraserhead is not a glossary of symbols but a clear account of its imaginative power. The two sources of horror in the film are the diseased organic world of the body itself and the cruel machines (and indeed the ruined industrial setting) that surround it. With a cold, clear eye, David Lynch shows us both kinds of disgust – the slimy, unguent products of the human body and its activities and then the vividly imagined device into which Henry’s head is inserted to be processed into erasers for pencils.
Sean French, Sight & Sound, Spring 1987

A contemporary review

No synopsis could adequately convey the perfect nightmare of David Lynch’s extraordinary black-and-white horror; the film itself is an absurdist, surreal treat of repulsive beauty and grisly comedy. Over and above its perverse plot, the film’s crisp imagery (often of inexplicable phenomena) and its controlled playing have a unique and eerie suggestiveness.

Even though there’s material enough in this post-punk dreamscape for an imaginative Freudian to have a field-day, Lynch consistently eschews symbolism and allegory, and gives priority to none of the levels of inevitably decomposing ‘reality’ inhabited by his catatonic hero. He also refuses to indulge in isolated shocks – although the superb effects provide opportunities aplenty – and concentrates on a cumulative, suspenseful grotesquerie. Henry’s unique odyssey, finally, is tracked towards an almost intimate apocalypse.

Critical shorthand would probably append the work of Bosch and Beckett, and perhaps David Cronenberg and the Kuchars, as tenuous reference points, but Eraserhead is a movie to be experienced rather than explained.
Paul Taylor, Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1979

Directed by: David Lynch
©: David Lynch
Produced with the co-operation of: AFI Center for Advanced Film Studies
Produced by: David Lynch
Production Manager: Doreen G. Small
Production Crew: Jeanne Field, Michael Grody, Stephen Grody, Toby Keeler, Roger Lundy, John Lynch, Dennis Nance, Anatol Pacanowsky, Carol Schreder
Assistant to the Director: Catherine Coulson
Screenplay: David Lynch
Camera and Lighting: Frederick Elmes, Herbert Cardwell
Assistant Camera: Catherine Coulson
Special Effects Photography: Frederick Elmes
Special Effects: David Lynch
Picture Editing: David Lynch
Production Design: David Lynch
Song Composed by: Peter Ivers
Song Sung by: Peter Ivers
Pipe Organ by: ‘Fats’ Waller
Location Sound: Alan R. Splet
Re-Recording: Alan R. Splet
Sound Editing: Alan R. Splet
Sound Effects: David Lynch, Alan R. Splet
Special thanks to: Jack Fisk, Peggy Lynch, Sidney P. Solow, Sissy Spacek, George Stevens Jr

John Nance (Henry Spencer)
Charlotte Stewart (Mary X)
Allen Joseph (Bill X)
Jeanne Bates (Mrs X, Mary’s mother)
Judith Anna Roberts (beautiful girl across the hall)
Laurel Near (lady in the radiator)
V. Phipps-Wilson (landlady)
Jack Fisk (man in the planet)
Jean Lange (grandmother)
Thomas Coulson (the boy)
John Monez (bum)
Darwin Joston (Paul)
Neil Moran (the boss)
Hal Landon Jr (pencil machine operator)
Jennifer Lynch (little girl)
Brad Keeler (little boy)
Peggy Lynch, Doddie Keeler (persons digging in the alley)
Gill Dennis (man with cigar)
Toby Keeler (fighting man)
Raymond Walsh (Mr Roundheels)

USA 1976©
89 mins

Thu 27 May 18:20; Mon 14 Jun 21:00; Thu 24 Jun 21:10
Man Hunt
Fri 28 May 18:10; Sat 12 Jun 16:00; Tue 29 Jun 14:15
Fri 28 May 21:00; Wed 2 Jun 18:10 (+ pre-recorded intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large) Mon 28 Jun 21:00
La Haine
Sat 29 May 21:00; Wed 16 Jun 21:00; Fri 18 Jun 20:40
Citizen Kane
Sun 30 May 12:40; Mon 21 Jun 20:45
Raging Bull
Sun 30 May 15:30; Tue 1 Jun 17:30
Touch of Evil
Mon 31 May 12:45; Sat 5 Jun 17:50; Sun 20 Jun 18:15
The Last Picture Show (Director’s Cut)
Mon 31 May 12:50; Mon 7 Jun 17:45
Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten)
Tue 1 Jun 14:30; Fri 25 Jun 20:45
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Thu 3 Jun 14:30; Tue 22 Jun 18:30
Sweet Smell of Success
Fri 4 Jun 15:00; Sun 13 Jun 15:45; Sat 26 Jun 11:40
The Man Who Wasn’t There
Fri 4 Jun 17:50; Sun 27 Jun 18:20
L’eclisse (The Eclipse)
Sat 5 Jun 12:10; Tue 15 Jun 17:50
The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band)
Sun 6 Jun 18:10; Sat 26 Jun 16:30
Le Doulos + pre-recorded intro by Professor Ginette Vincendeau, King’s College London
Mon 7 Jun 14:15; Thu 17 Jun 20:45; Wed 30 Jun 17:45
The Killers + pre-recorded intro by Imogen Sara Smith, author of ‘In Lonely Places: Film Noir beyond the City’
Tue 8 Jun 14:30; Wed 23 Jun 17:50
The Night of the Hunter
Tue 8 Jun 20:50; Wed 16 Jun 18:15 (+ pre-recorded intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large)
The Tango Lesson
Wed 9 Jun 17:50 (+ pre-recorded intro by So Mayer, author of ‘The Cinema of Sally Potter’)
Cleo from 5 to 7 Cléo de 5 à 7
Thu 10 Jun 21:00; Mon 21 Jun 14:30
Bitter Victory
Sun 20 Jun 13:00; Mon 28 Jun 17:55
The Big City (Mahanagar)
Wed 23 Jun 17:40
The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo)
Thu 24 Jun 17:40

Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at

Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.

We’re also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.

We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view. See something different today on

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at

Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email.