Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
David Lynch movies have had a slow road to DVD. Blue Velvet is not only out but will have a nice special
edition next year, and Dune looks fine even though it's devoid of 16:9 enhancement or any hint of
the hours of additional material that was filmed. There are a couple of others including the
interesting Straight Story from a couple of years back, but fans are still itching for the
rest of his strange filmography. With little fanfare, Paramount has finally brought the full B&W
Panavision version of Lynch's excellent The Elephant Man to DVD.
Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a Surgeon at London Hospital that is doing
good progressive work with anaesthetics, takes an interest in a sideshow freak exhibited by a scurrilous
mountebank named Bytes (Freddie Jones). John Merrick (John Hurt) is a disgustingly deformed young
man who must wear a hood in public, who cannot walk straight, or even lie down without risking
asphyxiation. Treves 'rents' Merrick for some study and conferences, but loses track of him when
the abusive Bytes takes him to France. Merrick eventually escapes his owner, and makes his way back
to London where Treves finds him residence in the hospital, winning approval from the
institution's Governor (John Gielgud) and head nurse (Wendy Hiller). Cleaned up, and treated with
respect, John shows himself to be a sensitive gentleman, even a bit vain, and publicity surrounding
his case attracts the attention of the charitable well-to-do. Visited
by royalty and celebrities like actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), John also falls victim to
a thuggish night porter (Michael Elphick), who secretly exhibits him at night in his own rooms atop
the hospital. In the midst of all this, Treves has to ask himself if he's really helping John, or just
using his notoriety to advance his own career, as sort of a gentleman version of Bytes.
The Elephant Man has just about everything. A human story, told with remarkable
sensitivity. A view of society as a sham, where a decent man plumbs the squalor and baseness
that surrounds his little island of propriety, and sees it for what it is. It's a nightmare
film we can all relate to, even if
the leading character is a once-in-a-century freakish aberration. Frederick Treves sets out
cooly to study Merrick, tries to help him, yet ends up learning the meaning of charity and honor.
All this is from David Lynch, the cult-shock director whose Eraserhead repulsed and thrilled
midnight viewers in 1978. He apparently convinced producers that his talent wasn't limited to a
dark musing on misery and mutilation, using industrial machine noises for a soundtrack. In
The Elephant Man he's perfectly in control of a full English crew of top rank professionals,
and some of the best actors in the business.
The Elephant Man is original enough not to be an hommage to anything, although comparisons to
Hammer films are natural. The drama and artistic intent of this b&w Gothic are several
notches above Hammer's exploitation & genre concerns; rated PG and concentrating on humanistic values,
it's not the kind of show you walk away from thinking, 'This is a great horror movie.' The monster
in this case suffers like Frankenstein's creation, cast out as unclean. When some simple decency is
afforded him, he blooms not into a vengeful killer, but into a beautiful human soul.
The script shows the best and worst of the Victorian world. Unthinking 'haves' like the Gielgud
character, wish nice homilies on the fate of the unwashed lower classes, but it's the strong-minded
working people like Wendy Hiller's character whose stern discipline keeps total anarchy from
Anthony Hopkins is learned and aloof, and discovers his own sensitivity through Merrick, eventually coming
to question the whole nature of charity and goodwill in his rigid society. He's especially potent
when he confesses to his own wife his fear that he's just invented a new way of exploiting his fellow
man, that he may not be a good person at all. This self-questioning is The Elephant Man's best
aspect; I can't think of another film that elicits this kind of delicate rumination in
a mass audience.
It's still a Lynch vision all the way. Beyond all the genteel gaslights & lace, are creepy
montages that conjure dark visions of bestial rape; squalor and depravity in the lower depths of
society are given sobering attention. Merrick lives and endures in a horror world of beatings and
abuse, utterly without hope.
Turning genre conventions on their head, the torch-bearing mobs from Frankenstein become the
uncomprehending crowds that corner Merrick in the lavatory of a train station. Disaster comes not
from some sadistic aristocrat, but from a bitter hospital porter too brutalized himself to see
John Merrick as anything but a source of drinking money, setting up a parallel to the cruel fate
of another freakish outcast in Hammer's The Revenge of Frankenstein. All of this strangeness
is enclosed within yet another brilliantly Lynchian soundtrack of droning machinery and industrial age
sub-tonal rumblings. In the very first scene,Treves states his hate of the age of machines,
revealing himself as a closet romantic, looking for truth and beauty in places as unlikely as a dirty
circus sideshow. He's a horror hero, like Lynch, convinced there's some greater grace to be
discovered examining the loathesome but God-created crawling things to be found under mossy stones.
The luckiest and possibly most-deserving experimental filmmaker ever to be given a big production,
Lynch got nothing but the best for The Elephant Man. His cast are sensitive professionals
clearly delighted to be playing in something higher than the usual rubbish of the comatose English
film industry. The simply wonderful Wendy Hiller
(I Know Where I'm Going!) makes her Nurse
Superior role, that would be a walk-on in a Hammer film, an unforgettable portrait of a harsh
martinet who nevertheless knows what real charity and decency are made of. Freddie Jones (Dune,
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!, Juggernaut) gives his mountebank character layers of
pride, shame and brutality engendered by degradation and self-loathing. Every cabbie or nurse-trainee
who makes the briefest appearance is expertly played, to thoughtful effect.
Freddie Francis, the great cameraman of Sons and Lovers and The Innocents and himself
a director of middling horror films, gives Lynch's vision a celluloid interpretation with many
layers of visual complexity. Dusky office interiors are just right, and you can almost feel
the late 1800s in the struggling-to-be-antiseptic surgical theater. The cramped streets and cozy
salons have an evocative richness that never becomes saccharine, as in Oliver!, yet is far more
expressive than its nearest English horror competition, the very good
The Flesh and the Fiends. Francis seems to
bring out the best in directors both fussy (Jack Clayton) and exacting (Jack Cardiff) and here in
Elephant, David Lynch is able to create several very different worlds - the dark and nightmarish
French circus (very much like scenes in Night of the Hunter), the stuffy hospital, and
John Merrick's phantasmagorical inner world.
Paramount's DVD of The Elephant Man is immediately to be seized, just to feast one's eyes on
Francis' b&w photography in its original Panavision format. Unseen except for revival screenings and
a Japanese subtitled video release, cable and television screenings have all been of a revolting pan
'n scan version further insulted with an overzealous squeeze. The DVD image looks just great, and the 5.1
mix of Lynch's weird personal soundtrack is excitingly rendered.
Savant had heard that Paramount had tacked on one of its dull and poorly made (and usually unattributed)
short featurettes, as was the case with
Sabrina. This collage of interviews
with the producers, John Hurt, and the makeup man comes off as both interesting and informative. Hurt's
recollections about the role and the crazy makeup he worked in, are fascinating, as
are the stories about the makeup artist using the real remains of John Merrick archived in
the London hospital. Eeek. A shorter bit has the artist explaining the exact construction of his
amibitious makup, and he also narrates a slide show that includes color photos of the finished
work. There are some mind-boggling stills of the real Merrick's grotesquely contorted skull, where
excess bone seems to have grown like tallow dripping from a horrible candle, or a foaming tumor of
excess calcification. Fascinating stuff, and an excellent (and compact) set of extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Elephant Man rates:
Supplements: Short interview docu, makeup demo, still resource
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 6, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson
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