Blu-ray Review: The Elephant Man | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, November 26th, 2020  

The Elephant Man

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Oct 22, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

After the underground success of Eraserhead, there was a brief period in the career of David Lynch where he’d not yet become a name brand for cinematic weirdness. His unique trademarks, obsessions, and hang-ups were all on full display from the start, obviously, but the Hollywood studios thought they might be able to tap into his singular talents to produce hits for their filmmaking system, like Scorsese, Coppola, Carpenter, and others before him. Of course, the disastrous Dune (1984) would blow up this idea, and force the director to rebuild his career around making unmistakably Lynch-ian films for cult audiences. But before that came The Elephant Man (1980), a prestige picture for which Lynch was the perfect hire.  

The movie follows Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a surgeon at London Hospital during the late 1800s. Wandering the crowded streets of the Victorian city, Treves comes upon a penny gaff show for a man supposedly so deformed that the police are forced to shut down his public display. Treves makes a deal with the poor soul’s abusive keeper to bring him into the hospital and be shown in a scientific lecture. When Treves finds him beaten, he brings the man under his dutiful watch. As he gets to know him, he learns that “The Elephant Man” is not a mindless imbecile, as assumed, but a very intelligent, emotionally broken young man named John Merrick – and as Treves continues his study and their friendship develops, he turns Merrick into the toast of London’s high society.

David Lynch’s The Elephant Man plays it fast and loose with the biographical details of John Merrick’s life – his actual name was Joseph Merrick, for starters – but does so for poetic impact. Merrick is made an unwilling participant in his exploitation, and the order of events are shifted around, but the effect is turning his story into something of a moral tale, almost Biblical in the scope of his suffering. Every cruel moment is utterly heart wrenching; the sad ending unexpectedly uplifting.

The Elephant Man landed eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. John Hurt’s best actor nomination is well-deserved: Hurt delivers an emotional and believable performance under pounds of makeup and prosthetics, and every labored breath Merrick takes feels premeditated. The movie did not win a single one of its categories, but it’s even more surprising that the movie’s stark, black-and-white cinematography wasn’t even nominated at all.

And no, there’s no mistaking this for anything but a David Lynch film. The movie’s ominous sound design – by Lynch and his frequent collaborator, Alan Splet – may be the biggest clue, but you won’t miss the lingering shots of industrial machines, either. (The movie’s freakshow subject matter also plays right into Lynch’s interests.) The movie’s opening, a semi-abstract series of super-imposed images of elephants and a screaming woman, is just one shot of a ceiling fan away from something you’d have seen in Twin Peaks.

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of the film is excellent, packed with extras angling both on Lynch’s work and Joseph Merrick as a historical figure. The 4K restoration would be worth the upgrade from DVD alone, but the hours of bonus features earn this one our highest recommendation.



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