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THE ELEPHANT MAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones
Director:  David Lynch
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  123 Minutes
Release Date:  December 4, 2001

“I…am not an animal…I am a human being!”

Film ****

The Elephant Man is a movie dealing with an unspeakably hideous monster…and that monster is us.

Director David Lynch takes us, the audience, closer than we might have ever dared to a beautiful man trapped inside a deformed body.  That man is John Merrick (Hurt), nicknamed the Elephant Man because of his terrible disfigurement, and also because of the story that his condition was owing to his mother being trampled by an elephant while she was pregnant (actually just a legend, possibly expressed in the film by the dreamlike quality of the images depicting it).

We first glimpse Merrick as the star attraction of a freak show, where his appearance is deemed so hideous that local law enforcement want the entire show run out of town.  A young surgeon named Frederick Treves (Hopkins) first meets him there.  His frozen first reaction, with mouth agape and tears falling, is only one of the picture’s memorable images.

He brings Merrick into the care of the hospital he works for…there, away from prying eyes (mostly), he begins to come out of his shell.  He can speak, and read, and is actually quite a sweet person with eloquent manners and a childlike amazement at everything around him.  Soon, Treves is introducing Merrick to good society, even to the likes of a beloved and famous stage actress (Bancroft), who sees the real human being behind the disfigurement.

But the question arises…has Treves taken the place of the ringmaster?  “Seems to me,” his head nurse (Hiller) points out, “that he’s just being stared at all over again.”  The delighted Merrick makes the most of his chances with people, and Treves, who finds his reputation being built on Merrick, begins to question his own motivations.

This develops into two extraordinary scenes…one unimaginably horrible, and one comfortingly beautiful.  There are those who would never see John Merrick as anything but a freak, and some of them get their way with him in a nightmarish sequence worthy of the best David Lynch has ever offered…it is equally repulsive and heartbreaking. 

But a redeeming scene follows, as Merrick, who hasn’t long to live, gets a dream fulfilled…he attends his first theatrical performance, where the audience gives him a standing ovation.

There’s no question about the real beauty of John Merrick.  Watching this film, he seems like the kind of man whose company we would all enjoy.  But the movie warms us up to him…we don’t get good looks at him at first.  He is shown from a distance, or masked, or in another memorable scene, silhouetted behind a curtain.  Eventually, we start to get our close looks at him at the same time we are learning about his character, and the effect is softened.

Which, in the end, says a great deal more about us than it does John Merrick.  The film accuses us…are we any different from those who pay to see the freak show?  We like to think so…but then again, how would we have reacted to Mr. Merrick if we had beheld his physical form first before getting to know him?

When all is said and done, the last remaining prejudice mankind will have to confront is the one against ugliness.  Twenty years after The Elephant Man, it seems we still have a ways to go.

This is one of my favorite films, partly because I’m a David Lynch fan, and partly because it’s simply an astonishing work of form and function.  The black and white photography ranks amongst the best ever seen in cinema, as pools of light and shadow don’t create extremes so much as they do temperatures…certain scenes feel much cooler than others.  The images aren’t expressive, but rather reflective instead.  The performances are wonderful, especially the always good Anthony Hopkins and the immeasurably fine work of John Hurt, who finds the human being inside of John Merrick (as well as under a pile of makeup).  These elements, under the sure hand of David Lynch, help create a picture with heart, soul and mind.  Mr. Lynch, who is sometimes called a cold filmmaker, proves how much emotion he can inject into a movie.

John Merrick is a wonderful character because he doesn’t change.  It is those who view him who must do the changing…that it his challenge.  “I am happy every hour of the day,” he remarks near the end.  “My life is full, because I know I am loved.”

Amen, John.  May we all be able to say the same thing.

Video ***1/2

I’ve seen this movie a number of times over the last twenty years, and this DVD marks my first experience with it in widescreen…bravo!  Paramount’s anamorphic transfer is beautiful, and nicely preserves the stunning black and white images.  Though not in color, the scenes are vibrant and alive, with a full range of grayscale, cleans whites and deep blacks.  I noticed no grain or compression evident, even in the darker scenes.  If not for an occasional noticeable print flaw (not too many, mind you), it would have earned highest marks.  Still, a highly commendable effort overall, and one fans will be very pleased with!

Audio ***

One of the best aspects of David Lynch’s soundtracks is the presence of ominous bottom end tones throughout.  While The Elephant Man offers little in the way of rear stage effects as it is a mostly dialogue oriented picture, the subwoofer gets much more attention than you might expect, with low orchestra notes, or the sounds of grinding machinery…these add to the quality of the images, and make this a better than average re-mix.

Features **1/2

The half hour retrospective documentary is a good one, though it sorely misses David Lynch.  Instead, there are thoughts offered from John Hurt, DP Freddie Francis, makeup man Christopher Tucker, and even Mel Brooks, who was a silent executive producer of the film (he purposely left his name off to avoid giving people the wrong idea about the movie).  There is a separate interview with Mr. Tucker, as well as a photo gallery narrated by him, which shows him at work on the film.  Rounding out is the original trailer…a good one.  One really bad idea, however, is the failure to include chapter selections…in fact, there are no chapters in the movie, making it a little hard to find favorite scenes!

Summary:

As John Hurt remarked, “If you can get through The Elephant Man without being moved, I don’t think you’re someone I would want to know.”  This is a beautiful, haunting, and intensely heartbreaking motion picture experience…it ranks amongst the best films of the 80s, and now, thanks to Paramount’s quality DVD offering, can be enjoyed in the anamorphic widescreen ratio in which it was intended to be seen.