"Freaks are one thing. There's no objection to freaks, but this is entirely different. This is monstrous."
Although it can probably be considered his most conventional feature, David Lynch's 1980 film The Elephant Man shares the director's distinct authorial voice made famous in such decidedly off-the-wall cult items as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. The movie's striking black and white photography, like that of his debut Eraserhead, is richly textured and filled with intricate detail. As with all of his works, Lynch evokes a truly palpable sense of atmosphere, with fascinating aural and visual cues layered throughout every scene. His recurring fascination with freaks, lunatics, and the dangers of industrial mechanization are also well in evidence. Yet The Elephant Man marries these themes and signature style to a relatively straightforward narrative that is one of his most accessible and least alienating. That's not to say that the movie is simplistic. Quite the contrary, it's a work of admirable restraint and artistry.
The film is based on the true story of John Merrick (actually Joseph Merrick; the name was misattributed as "John" in some early biographies, an error that carries through here), a man so deformed by birth defects and various genetic abnormalities that he was deemed too repulsive even for the carnival circuits of Victorian London. Discovered by physician Frederick Treves of the Royal London Hospital (played by Anthony Hopkins), the downtrodden and abused Merrick is brought in for medical examination, cleaned up, and cared for. Upon first meeting him, Treves sees Merrick as only a specimen to be analyzed, and assumes that he must be mentally incompetent. He attempts to train the patient like an animal, teaching him to act presentable in company and speak lines fed to him.
Even when it's revealed that Merrick has a fully functioning mind, is literate, and has a rather sensitive soul, he's still treated as more curiosity than man. Introduced to high society via a friendship with famed stage actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), efforts to make a celebrity out of Merrick amount to little more than a high-class freak show comparable to his life at the carnival. The privileged and wealthy make special visits to his hospital room to gawk, have tea in his company, and pretend to make polite conversation for as long as they can disguise their repulsion at his features, thus exposing the hypocrisy of the genteel class. All that's missing is payment of a nickel to a barker beforehand. Eventually Treves comes to acknowledge the moral dilemma that his good intentions have wrought. He may have improved Merrick's physical quality of life, but at the expense of further exploiting and dehumanizing his famous patient.
"I am not an elephant. I am not an animal. I am a human being. I am a man!"
The movie takes some liberties with historical fact, not the least of which is getting Merrick's first name wrong. It jumbles some of the events of his life and fictionalizes others. The abusive Bytes played by Freddie Jones was created for the movie, apparently in reference to the Bill Sykes character from Charles Dickens' novel (and David Lean's 1948 film version of) Oliver Twist, influences felt throughout. The picture is less historical biopic than Hollywood drama. Nevertheless, it's a very good drama with fine performances, a compelling story, and an outstanding visual design. It may be David Lynch's least personal production, but the humanity and sympathy for the characters shine through here more than in even his signature pieces. The director's impeccable craftsmanship and steady hand with the potentially mawkish material have allowed the movie to remain one of his most acclaimed. The film was nominated for a host of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (for John Hurt, delivering a sympathetic performance from beneath the extensive and still-convincing makeup effects). Even the majority of viewers who dislike David Lynch's other works will acknowledge The Elephant Man as one of the best films of the 1980s.
The HD DVD:
The Elephant Man debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Studio Canal in Europe. The copy under review is a French release, but a comparable edition (the same disc in different packaging) is also available in the UK from Momentum Pictures. At the present time, European HD DVDs are not region-coded and will function in an American HD DVD player. In North America, this title is distributed by Paramount Home Entertainment and could conceivably be released on both High Definition formats, though the studio has not yet announced any plans to do so.
The disc opens with a selection of menu languages to choose from: French, English, German, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, or Dutch. The menu language selected will unlock audio and subtitle options that can only be accessed from that specific menu. Once you've chosen, your HD DVD player should store this information in its persistent memory, so the next time you load the disc it will remember your preferred menu without prompting. The language can still be changed if you desire, simply by selecting the arrow at the bottom of the menu page.
Before getting to the main menu, however, the disc automatically plays a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. The Studio Canal promo includes clips from several movies that are distributed by Blu-ray exclusive studios in the U.S. including Terminator 2, Total Recall, First Blood, and Basic Instinct.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Elephant Man HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. The widescreen black & white photography by Freddie Francis is extraordinary and requires the full width of the frame to appreciate his balanced compositions.
The film's opening sequence has heavy grain by design, and as digitized here the picture during that scene is very noisy, with an unpleasant electronic texture and unnatural sparkly grain patterns. Things clear up dramatically after that, fortunately. The majority of the movie is remarkably crisp and clear, and other appearances of film grain look fine. The source elements used are in very good shape for their age, with only minor dirt or scratches, though there are a couple of sections (notably during scenes in Bytes' hovel) where specific shots look degraded and fuzzy, as if they had to be spliced in from a lesser-quality dupe print due to damage. These instances are very rare, however.
The image has a strong sense of detail, especially in things like the cobblestone streets seen in medium and wide shots. The transfer has excellent gray scale and contrast range, with deep blacks and plenty of shadow detail. In only one spot did I feel that the picture had been overly brightened: the first appearance of Merrick at 13:46. In prior video copies Merrick had been obscured by heavy shadow there, barely visible at all, and frankly that seemed most accurate (the full extent of his deformities meant to be revealed later). But here the shots of Merrick are so bright that you can see everything too clearly, including seams in the costume. This is a minor complaint in only one scene, though.
More distressing are some sporadic digital artifacts, caused due to either excessive Noise Reduction or just plain poor compression. Jaggedness and pixelation are visible for brief instances, usually at the tail-end of shots, such as at 19:44. This doesn't happen too often, but when it does it really stands out.
Even with these nits to pick, for the most part the HD DVD does a commendable job of representing the movie's terrific photography.
The Elephant Man HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo format. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing no HD DVD hardware is capable of properly decoding the full Master Audio lossless codec. Instead, players extract the lossy DTS core, which is equivalent to DVD quality. It still sounds good, but may offer further improvements when advanced hardware is released in the future.
While the stereo mix is faithful to the movie's original 1980 theatrical presentation, David Lynch did prepare a 5.1 remaster for the Region 1 DVD release in 2001. That remix has not been provided to Studio Canal. As a result, the HD DVD's audio sounds a little dated in terms of fidelity, and of course is limited to the front soundstage. The movie has excellent sound design by Alan Splet with some fascinating aural textures that still come across nicely, though.
Sadly, most of the early Studio Canal HD DVDs, this title included, have suffered from a pitch issue similar to the effects of PAL speedup. The video on the disc is encoded at 1080p24 format and runs at the normal theatrical speed, yet the pitch is still noticeably higher than it should be. This really makes itself known in the actors' voices; Anthony Hopkins sounds a little like a chipmunk. Since the video is technically not sped up, the cause of this problem is unknown at this point. Perhaps Studio Canal used a PAL audio master and merely time-stretched it to fit the new video encode. Or perhaps they deliberately raised the pitch, expecting that their European audience would be so used to PAL audio that they'd think something were wrong if the soundtrack played correctly. In any case, it's a significant disappointment. Hopefully the studio will learn from their mistakes and correct them for future releases.
As with PAL DVDs, some viewers will find the pitch issue more distracting than others. If you've ever watched a PAL disc and weren't bothered by the 4% speedup, odds are that you'll have no problem with this HD DVD's audio either.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, French, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, German, or Dutch.
Alternate language tracks - DTS-HD MA French 1.0 mono or German 2.0 stereo.
Your choice of main menu language will limit the audio and subtitle options you can select.
The disc contains no bonus features relating to the movie. The only supplement is a section of video and audio test patterns. Perhaps because this is a black & white movie, the video patterns offer only Brightness and Contrast tests, no color bars. I found the Brightness level suggested by these patterns to be much higher than that on the Digital Video Essentials HD DVD, resulting in a movie image severely washed out, so I returned my display to its normal calibrated settings and must assume that the patterns on the disc are inaccurate.
The Elephant Man is a fine drama whose artistry still holds up to viewings over 25 years later. The European HD DVD does a pretty good (though imperfect) job of representing the movie's black & white photography, but its audio is flawed by pitch problems. The disc merits a qualified recommendation for the time being. If Paramount ever gets around to releasing the movie in High Definition for the North American market, perhaps they might do an even better job.
Dune (HD DVD) - David Lynch
HD Review Index
High-Def Revolution - DVDTalk's HD Column
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player