(This blog is filled with spoilers, so be warned)
The 1970s was a golden period for the film industry more specifically the horror genre and since it is the Halloween season I felt I needed to discuss some of my favourite horror films from this amazing era. I will list my top two favourites in this blog because I am too lazy to do anymore.
After looking through a list on Google I was amazed by the sheer volume of fantastic horror films that were produced in the 70s – The Wicker Man, Carrie, The Omen, Jaws, Don’t Look Now, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of The Dead and Halloween.
The list never ends.
To start off I want to rave about what is in my opinion David Lynch’s best film, I am talking about his directorial debut Eraserhead. The film was released in 1977 after going through several years of principal photography and a lot of financial difficulty. Jack Fisk who worked as a production designer on the film and his wife Sissy Spacek helped to keep the project going through donating their own money.
Lynch began working on the project whilst he was studying at the American Film Institute’s Centre for Advanced Film Studies, he took inspiration for Eraserhead from one of his own paintings of a hunched figure and Lynch began working on the script in 1970 which was originally named ‘Gardenback’. In 1968 aged 22 David Lynch became a father for the first time and the film is based on his own personal experiences of fatherhood.
Eraserhead is one of those films I would describe as an experience, it sucks you into this empty and desolate world and it never lets you out of its grasp. Henry (Jack Nance) lives in a small apartment building and he works in a local printing firm. The first time we see Henry he is walking home after doing a bit of shopping, he enters the apartment building, checks his letterbox for mail and then goes up a very rickety elevator.
Henry has been invited to dinner with his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents, Henry drops off his groceries first and begins to make his way over to their home. We can see Mary anxiously peaking outside of her front window, she has some terrifying news to share with her other half. We see Henry reluctantly walk through some isolated alleyways and streets, he is startled by loud distant howls from a angry pack of dogs, he makes sure to quicken his pace.
He arrives at the house late and it is incredibly awkward, I question how Henry and Mary ever ended up with each other because the two have literally zero chemistry. Henry sits down with her parents and the awkwardness doesn’t go away, the conversation is disjointed with long uncomfortable pauses, Henry clearly wants to go but he knows he can’t. This scene is really weird and it continues to get even weirder, after a bizarre spot of dinner Mary drops the bombshell no one was expecting.
Mary informs everyone that she is pregnant and Henry’s world comes crashing down, her mother demands that the couple should marry and next Mary moves into Henry’s apartment to care for their new baby. Henry clearly finds the idea of marriage and fatherhood to be a horrifying nightmare and by looks of it he isn’t wrong.
Eraserhead has wonderful sound design that is moody and nerve-wracking, the soundtrack is also fitting and it contributes wonderfully to the atmosphere. I also want to touch on the baby as well because it is one of the most terrifying creatures I’ve ever seen in any film.
Eraserhead is such a weird and unsettling film, I mentioned the word nightmare in a previous paragraph and this sums up Eraserhead perfectly. The film is surreal and dreamlike and is genuinely unpleasant on times. Henry is our way into this world, he has made a huge mistake that can’t resolved. Henry is trapped with no way out and he doesn’t have much in his life to give him hope. Eventually he ends up by himself with the baby and he tries his best to control an uncontrollable situation.
Jack Nance is wonderful in the film, he is innocent and hopeless but he never gives in, a lot of his performance is wonderfully communicated through body language and facial expressions. I think you are supposed to sympathise with Henry and relate to his situation, Henry is desperately grasping at any strand of hope left in his life and I believe he eventually finds it. This is what makes Eraserhead special, the film can be interpreted in many different ways and this is what makes it a unique experience.
I would describe Eraserhead as a masterpiece, I love original films and you won’t get anything more original than this. This film established David Lynch as a director to look out for and I feel it is the highest point in his career.
I am cheating a bit on this next one because it is not an all out horror film, I would describe Wake in Fright as a sort of dark comedy/thriller with little bits of horror spliced in, there is of course a famous scene involving kangaroos which I will touch on later. Wake in Fright is set in the lonely barren deserts of the Australian outback, the film opens with a long shot of a tiny school awkwardly placed in the middle of an empty town named Tiboonda.
The town consists of a filthy looking hotel named the Silverton, a pathetically small train station and the aforementioned school, John Grant (Gary Bond) is a teacher in this school and he also happens to be the main character in this film. John is unhappy with his job and he despises his place of residence, the first time we see him he is teaching a classroom filled with children and he can’t wait to escape.
It is the last day until the start of Christmas break and John plans to leave Tiboonda to visit his girlfriend in Sydney. The piercing sound of a school bell jolts out and the classroom is empty, John pops into the Silverton for a quick pint and he begins his long journey to Sydney.
John travels alone via train and he is unexpectedly offered a can of beer, this won’t be the only time, he stops off at a local town named the ‘Yabba’ to catch a flight which is on its way to Sydney. John has time to kill so he decides to go into a nearby pub for a quick drink with some of the locals, he runs into the town’s sheriff Jock (Chips Rafferty) and the two end up befriending each other for a short time.
Jock: (watching John drink) Better?
John: Yes, better. Thanks mate.
Jock: Have another one!
John: Oh no, I don’t really like to.
Jock: One more beer, thanks Joyce.
After a good session of drinking the sheriff decides to show John around the town and introduce him to what the ‘Yabba’ has to offer. John expresses his desire to eat, so Jock takes him to wretched café for a good portion of burnt steak.
“C’mon on, the beer’s real good in here”
“Oh no Jock, no, I’ll pass out if I don’t eat soon”
“Well it’s easy to see you’re not a Yabba man”
Before chowing on his steak John encounters Doc (Donald Pleasance), he is a complete slob that drinks too much and looks like he hasn’t showered in over 10 years. Doc is in my opinion the best character in the film, the guy is a complete lunatic who is hilarious to watch, Doc becomes a pivotal character later on and he steals the show. Anyway back to the story.
John notices a betting game named ‘two-up’ taking place in the back and he asks Jock about what is going on, Jock explains the game and John seems really interested in joining in.
Jock: Do you get the idea now, John?
John: Well, you just bet on whether the pennies come down on heads or tails.
Jock: Yeah, that’s right.
John has a go at two up and at first he is successful, he manages to accumulate enough cash to get him out of Tiboonda and set him on his way to Sydney, John’s luck seems to be in but it doesn’t last long. John bets all of his money on two more rounds and this backfires, he ends up losing everything and is permanently trapped in the Yabba.
To drown his sorrows John returns to the pub and his plan is to get absolutely intoxicated, John runs into a local named Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) who has no issue buying him a drink.
Tim: New to the Yabba?
John: New to the Yabba.
Tim: You like the old place?
John: No, I think its bloody awful!
Tim: You don’t like the Yabba?
Tim: Will you have a drink?
John: I’m toying with this one, thanks.
Tim: Well, drink it down, I’ll buy you another.
John: Look I’m flat broke and I can’t afford to drink!
Tim: Whats that got to do with it, man? I said I’d buy you one! You don’t have to buy me one! Now drink it down!
Tim: Two middies! Don’t forget the tomato juice!
John ends up coming home with Tim and he is introduced to his daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay) and his two friends Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittie) who are of course best friends with Doc. What follows is plenty of drinking, a little more drinking and some good old-fashioned kangaroo hunting.
The first time I watched the kangaroo hunting scene I didn’t think it was that bad, I thought it was certainly messed up and disturbing but I wasn’t affected. The second time I watched it I was horrified, the scene is brutal and cruel and it kinda makes you hate the characters involved.
I can understand why the scene is in the film because it goes with the harsh setting and tone but it is really nasty to watch, I like when a film takes risks and tries to be shocking but I found the scene to be a bit too much.
Ok let’s talk about some positives because there’s a lot to like about Wake in Fright, I love the dark sense of humour and how weird many of the characters are. I find the themes that Wake in Fright touches on to be intriguing like how everyone in the Yabba is always constantly drinking to try to block out how unhappy they are and to try to ignore their problems. I think the acting is wonderful too and Gary Bond does a really a good job as John Grant, some of the encounters John has with Doc in particular are hilarious.
John: And what do you do?
Doc: I drink.
Wake in Fright also has themes of loneliness, isolation, homosexuality and of course alcoholism, the film never slaps you in the face with what it is trying to say instead it presents you with its themes and allows you to interpret. Which I love.
I like the setting as well, I love how harsh and beaten down everything is, there is not a lot to happy about in the Yabba and this takes it toll on the characters. The hot weather is savage and unrelenting and sweat is always streaming down somebody’s face, the actors themselves look uncomfortable and desperate which probably helps contribute to the desperation of their characters.
Despite the repetitive look of everything I find the film to be striking and beautiful, the film is shot using a lot of wides and this gives you a sense of how grand and unending the Australian outback really is.
I also love how the film presents the Yabba and it’s residents. As a viewer you feel exactly the same as John, you feel like an outsider looking into this very bizarre little world and you don’t feel particularly welcome, John eventually gives in and decides to go along with all the lunacy and I guess we do as well.
I don’t think I’ve said it yet but I really love Wake in Fright, despite some of the problems I have with the Kangaroo scene, the film is genuinely great. Wake in Fright was directed by Ted Kotcheff and this was his fourth feature, Kotcheff eventually went on to direct Rambo: First Blood with Sylvester Stallone. This and Rambo are by far his best films.
Before I end this, I wanted to try to connect these two films in some way and I found two similarities.
The main character in both films is certainly one, John and Henry are both lonely men who don’t seem to have a lot to care about or anyone to care for, they are both trapped in a situation they can’t escape and of course both characters are very unhappy.
I also saw similarities in the setting in both films, both settings are harsh and barren and look very depressing. You get a feeling of emptiness from both films and I think the setting adds to this.
So there you have it two weird and disturbing and messed up and nightmare inducing films for you to enjoy on Halloween or any time of year (if you’re weird like me). The saying “they don’t make em like they used to” is used far to often in my opinion but I think it is fitting for Eraserhead and Wake in Fright, so I urge you to check out these films now!
I would like to credit the Guardian, Wikipedia and IMDB for the information, article and quotes used in this blog, I have linked their websites below.