Criterion has released two classics of gothic black and white horror with Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and David Lynch’s Eraserhead now joining their collection. The former is a brilliant adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, while the latter is one of the most singular experiences in cinema history, a film that became a perennial midnight movie for a very good reason. Criterion is celebrating Halloween this year in style, and my review of both films on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, who is hired by The Uncle (Michael Redgrave) to tend to his niece and nephew, who have been under his care (but not in his house) since their parents died a long time ago. She’s never been a governess before, and she’s coming into this job under odd circumstances: the previous governess died suddenly. She gets the job and moves into the grounds where Flora (Pamela Franklin) already is living, while her brother Miles (Martin Stephens) will be coming home soon as he’s recently been expelled. There aren’t too many people at the mansion, and Miss Giddens is given total authority as the uncle doesn’t want to be bothered. But there’s something odd about the house and children, Miss Giddens seems to sees things, and Miles expresses an interest in Miss Giddens that goes beyond a simple crush. It turns out that the previous governess was involved with the valet Peter Quint, and the two died together. Miss Giddens thinks that the children are possessed by their spirits.
Director Jack Clayton is an oddity, as he didn’t direct that often, and this is his best (and arguably best known) film. But here he absolutely nails it. Perhaps it was working in anamorphic widescreen with cinematographer Freddie Francis that brought out the best in him. Or perhaps it’s that Deborah Kerr is perfect for the lead role. There’s just enough wiggle room in her character it sustains the idea that it all could be in her head. Plus the kids are perfect: You don’t trust or like them from the start, but you can’t tell if it’s because of the ghosts, or just that these are messed up kids (considering the death that’s surrounded them, and the lack of real parenting…).
Horror is often like sexual predilections in that what works for you might not interest everyone, and this is a ghost story from 1961, so there are some audiences who might not find this all that scary, or creepy, and – to be fair – it’s not the sort of film that scares me. But as a moody ghost story, it’s absolutely perfect, and is a brilliant adaptation of the James story (as done for the screen by William Archibald and Truman Capote). That said, of this era of supernatural stories, my favorite is Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon.
The Innocents is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) in a brand new 4K transfer and in 1.0 mono soundtrack. The transfer of the film is immaculate, the film looks almost new, and there’s no noise or print damage. The soundtrack is equally strong for what it is. Christopher Frayling provides a commentary track and an introduction (24 min.), both taken from a previous British special edition, but they’re both on point, and Frayling (who I know best as a Sergio Leone scholar) obviously loves this film and has a reservoir of knowledge about it. Done specifically for the Criterion collection is an interview with cinematographer John Bailey (19 min.), who talks about the director of photography Freddie Francis, offering a career overview and an appreciation of this film as Francis was working with the cinemascope image in a more primitive era, and how Francis used some of the imperfections of the image to his advantage. Also included is the featurette “Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty” (14 min.) which offers interviews with cinematographer Freddie Francis, editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis, all done in 2006. It’s hard to say if Criterion has had this planned for some time, or if this is culled from another country’s supplements (it’s valuable regardless as Francis died in 2007). Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer.
David Lynch’s Eraserhead is one of the purest examples of an artist’s vision ever brought to cinema. Every frame seems perfectly chosen, even if its purpose is unknown to the viewer (which it may very well be and Lynch is no help as he’s long kept his mouth shut about what his interpretation is, or what viewers should think). It is more an experience than simply a film, and it’s easy to see why the film played for years on the midnight movie circuit. It’s a film that may actually benefit from inebriated viewings, in that it may then sink deeper into one’s subconscious.
Henry Spencer (the late great Jack Nance) is a factory worker who lives in an apartment complex. Next door there is a mysterious and attractive woman (Judith Anna Roberts) who he has eyes for, but he has to go meet his female friend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents for dinner. During that dinner it’s revealed that Mary has had a baby, though one born wildly prematurely. Mary then moves in with Henry as they take care of their… thing. Once brought home the baby looks like a sentient sperm and is constantly needy, which eventually drives Mary out. But Henry, who’s on vacation, is ill-equipped to deal with the child alone. Also, there’s a woman in his radiatior (Laurel Near) who sings to Jack and steps on things that look like his child.
As much as Eraserhead may be about a fear of becoming a parent, or a fear of settling down with one woman, or being forced into a marriage because of a baby, the film is also about tone and Lynch creates a bone deep weirdness that applies a certain dream-like logic to the goings on. Though there is a dream sequence in the film (where the film’s title is made literal), the film presents images and sequences that don’t seem to synch up to a plot in any correlative way. That’s not the point (arguably that’s never the point with Lynch at his best). Lynch is an absolute master of tone, and there may never be a satisfactory reading of the film, but much like a great piece of classical music, there doesn’t have to be.
And the reason why that doesn’t matter is because all the parts sing. The film feels like it was shot in one day, but the production went on for over four years as Lynch worked to make everything perfect. It’s that dedication to something so specific that makes the film so singular. Working with cinematographers Herbert Caldwell and Fredrick Elmes, and with sound designer Alan Splet, every frame is a picture, and the industrial roar of the film feels lived in and yet still alien. And though Lynch would pursue more mainstream endeavors after this project, the weirdness that has been at the heart of all those latter efforts is in its purest form here.
Criterion presents Eraserhead in widescreen (1.85:1) and in an uncompressed stereo audio. Remastered in 4K, the movie looks and sounds like it’s brand new. But the film has always had a sort of timeless – or at least out of time – quality to it. There are no chapter stops, but the disc does come with a calibration option to make sure the picture is set to the levels Lynch intended. The disc also offers five short films by the director: Six Men Getting Sick, The Alphabet, The Grandmother, The Amputee (both versions) and Premonitions Following an Evil Deed. All come with introductions by Lynch. The first four were done pre-Eraserhead, and show that Lynch already had a peculiar vision from his earliest attempts, and there are definitely seeds of the artist he would become, but they are less fully formed. The final short was done for the film Lumiere and Company and is a singular work that runs just under a minute.
The supplement section is broken into years. “1977” offers the film’s theatrical trailer, “1979” has an interview with Lynch and cinematographer Fredrick Elmes done for UCLA (17 min.) where Lynch evades answering questions about what the movie is about. “1982” offers a trailer/introduction to Eraserhead by Lynch done specifically for the Nuart Theater, which played before the film for years. “1988” shows Lynch and Jack Nance revisiting locations from the film (7 min.), while “1997” offers an excerpt from the Lynch documentary Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch, showing Lynch, Nance, Charlotte Stewart and director’s assistant Catherine Coulson (aka the Log Lady from Twin Peaks) returning to the Eraserhead locations (16 min.). “2001” offers the feature-length documentary “Eraserhead Stories” (85 min.) which was included with the film’s DVD release, and has Lynch (and briefly Coulson) recalling the making of the picture and how it all came about. As to be expected from Lynch, he offers little insight into the why, but does offer a lot of information about how it was made. Finally “2014” gathers Coulson, Stewart, actress Judith Anna Roberts and Elmes to talk about the movie and its making as it fills in the gaps uncovered by Lynch himself. It’s in line to be one of if not the best catalog release of the year.