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Elephant Man, The

Paramount // PG // December 11, 2001
List Price: $29.00 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted December 7, 2001 | E-mail the Author

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 one-shot 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 breaking out. 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Short interview docu, makeup demo, still resource
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 6, 2001

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