After the auspicious debut of Eraserhead (1977), David Lynch was looking for a follow up project to the surreal film. By chance, Lynch came to the attention of comedy legend Mel Brooks, who was looking for a director for a film to help launch his new film production company. The end result was The Elephant Man, a drama rooted in the real life case of Joseph Merrick. Originally released on DVD by Paramount, Criterion has given the movie its long awaited Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 4.5/5
In late 19th Century Victorian England, Joseph “John” Merrick (John Hurt) is living a life on the freak show circuit under the thumb of the sociopathic Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones). However, his circumstances change when noted surgeon Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) takes an interest in John following a private showing; after examining him, he comes to discover that behind all the physical deformities lies a man of great intelligence and gentle nature. As John’s stature rises in Victorian society, Treves must also confront the very real possibility that he may just be no better or worse than Bytes in helping Merrick; John also comes to realize the great inner courage he never knew he had.
In the long career of David Lynch, The Elephant Man was more than just his first mainstream movie – it was also his first fully realized movie that bore many of his distinctive touches. Like Eraserhead, the film was shot in black and white, but here Lynch has the talents of cinematographer Freddie Francis and art director Stuart Craig at his disposal; together, they create an intoxicating atmosphere befitting of both Victorian London and the stories of Charles Dickens. While the movie does take a few liberties on the lives of both Merrick and Treves, the story stays true to its core of finding the human dignity lying beneath the skin; a lot of that owes to the top notch cast giving stellar performances. Finally – and best of all – Lynch never stoops to using sappy sentimentality to get his point across about the plight Merrick faced in his life; there’s genuine pathos throughout without resorting to knee jerk emotions at every turn. All in all, The Elephant Man helped to cement David Lynch as both a master stylist and storyteller whose unique outlook on life in cinema would soon come to full flower in the second half of the 1980’s.
As the surgeon who discovers Joseph Merrick and volunteers to help him, Anthony Hopkins turns in one of the best performances of his career; he, of course, would go on to Oscar anointed immortality as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). John Hurt arguably gives the performance of his career as Merrick (he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar here); this performance – along with the ill-fated astronaut Kane in Alien (1979) – has helped to cement his place in pop culture lore. Among supporting parts, standouts here include John Gielgud as the head of the London Hospital Francis Carr Gomm, Wendy Hiller as the head nurse of the hospital, Freddie Jones as the sadistic ringmaster Bytes, and Anne Bancroft as actress Madge Kendal. Rounding out the cast here are Michael Elphick as the duplicitous night porter, Hannah Gordon as Ann Treves, Dexter Fletcher as Bytes’ boy at the freak show, Phoebe Nicholls and Lydia Lisle as Mary Jane Merrick (the latter in film footage, the former in photographic still), Lesley Dunlop and Nula Conwell as Merrick’s nurses at the hospital, Helen Ryan as Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, and Kenny Baker in one of his non C3PO roles as a plumed dwarf.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio, taken from a brand new 4K digital restoration performed by Studiocanal. Film grain is organic with fine details, shadows and gray scale all given faithful representations; there’s very little to no instances of problems like dirt, dust, scratches, tears or reel markers present here. Overall, this is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video, making this a major improvement over previous home video releases including the 2001 Paramount DVD.
The film’s original stereo soundtrack is presented on a PCM track for this release, supervised and approved by Lynch. Dialogue is strong and clear, with the sound mix and John Morris’ haunting Oscar nominated score also given faithful representation as well; there’s minimal to no instances of issues like crackling, hissing, popping or distortion present here. Overall, this release likely represents the best the movie will ever sound on home video, blowing the Paramount DVD out of the water in this department.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Room to Dream reading (70 min.) – David Lynch and author Kristine McKenna read excerpts from the book they co-wrote, extensively covering the movie and its production.
Archival Interviews – A number of archival interviews with the cast and crew detailing some of the minutiae of the movie’s production are presented here: they include a 2o09 interview with Lynch (24:40), a 1980 UK TV (11:42) and 2009 interview with John Hurt (20:04), a 1988 Dutch TV interview with makeup artist Christopher Tucker and John Hurt (13:39), a 2018 BFI Q&A session with producer Jonathan Sanger (24:27) and a conversation between Lynch and filmmaker Mike Figgis (19:51).
Photographing The Elephant Man (25:19) – In this brand new interview, still photographer Frank Connor talks about his career and the decision to have the production stills photographed in black and white rather than in color.
1981 AFI Q&A and interview with David Lynch (50:45)
The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed (30:11) – This archival featurette, carried over from the 2001 Paramount DVD, goes over the movie’s production and its challenges; among those interviewed include executive producer Mel Brooks, Sanger, Hurt, Tucker and cinematographer Freddie Francis.
Joseph Merrick: The Real Elephant Man (19:50) – This 2005 BBC program has London Hospital museum curator Jonathan Evans talking about the life of Merrick and what the movie got right in bringing his story to the screen.
Theatrical Trailer (2:42)
Radio Spots (3) (1:23)
Booklet featuring excerpts from the 2005 book Lynch on Lynch discussing the movie and a 1886 letter by London Hospital chairman Francis Culling Carr Gomm to the London Times
Winning over both critics and audiences alike, The Elephant Man is both a straightforward and significant work of art by the usually surreal David Lynch. Criterion has delivered one of their best releases of the year with a terrific HD transfer and a tremendous slate of special features diving into the making of the movie and the life of its real life subject. Very highly recommended and well worth upgrading from the Paramount DVD.
Amazon.com: The Elephant Man (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]: Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, John Standing, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, David Lynch, Jonathan Sanger: Movies & TV
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