Paramount // 1980 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // December 10th, 2001
"I am not an animal! I am a human being!" -- John Merrick (John Hurt), The Elephant Man
David Lynch is surely one of the oddest filmmakers in Hollywood. While all his films are strange, they are also all often very diverse and different. This is the same man who made the sci-fi action flick Dune, the titillating Wild At Heart, and the G-rated The Straight Story. To say that Lynch is unpredictable in his directing choices is an overwhelming understatement. In 1980, Lynch had only a handful of films under his belt when he made the non-fiction The Elephant Man, a biopic of the trials and tribulations of the deformed John Merrick, AKA "The Elephant Man." Nominated for eight Academy Awards including best director and best actor (though winner of none), The Elephant Man comes to DVD care of Paramount Home Entertainment.
The Elephant Man is the story of 19th-century Englishman John Merrick and his affliction with the debilitating disease Proteous Syndrome, a crippling sickness that deforms the body, head and limbs with tumors and abnormalities. Laughed at and mocked in a freak show, Merrick is beaten by his keeper Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones) and sneered at by the public. Merrick is soon discovered by Dr. Fredrick Treves (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs), a brilliant surgeon, and escorted from his torturous carnival sideshow life to a local hospital in London. It is in this hospital that Merrick is shown warmth and compassion the likes of which he's never experienced. In Merrick's comfortable surroundings and with his new friends he's able to live out the rest of his days in dignity and compassion.
Everyone should see The Elephant Man and not because it's a well-made film (which it most certainly is), but because it will teach each and every one of us something about the human spirit. There is dignity in the portrayal of John Merrick that is lacking in most people I know. Merrick is a man who has spent most of his life beaten and laughed at, yet he still has compassion in his heart for the human race. He is the epitome of what we should all strive to be like. Does it sound as if I'm being preachy? Maybe that's because The Elephant Man is the type of movie that gets one thinking about their own lives and how we treat each other. I'm no stranger to cruelty and maliciousness -- in elementary school I was picked on because of the way I walked (I'm flat footed) and in high school I'm ashamed to admit that I gave out my fair share of cruelty to others. Every bully who ever walked the face of the earth should be forced to sit and watch this movie.
The Elephant Man plays very much like a film from the 1930s, which I'm sure was Lynch's goal. Scenes dissolve just like the old Universal monster films from yesteryear. The movie was filmed in glorious black and white which enhances the way we perceive the story -- The Elephant Man wouldn't have been half as powerful had it been filmed in color. Academy Award make-up artist Christopher Tucker fitted actor John Hurt with an amazing prosthetic that made John Merrick come to life. Lumpy and disfigured, Merrick was a monster on the outside and a saint on the inside. Hurt conveys Merrick's gentile demeanor hidden beyond his outer wall. Long before Anthony Hopkins would play the insidious Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, he proved that he was an able actor with his sensitive portrayal of Dr. Treves. Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud both give excellent performances in supporting roles, enhanced by John Morris' touching music score.
By definition I'm not much of a David Lynch fan. After watching Lost Highway I can't say that I was all that impressed with Lynch's work. However, Lynch finds just the right tone and balance with The Elephant Man. While many painful scenes abound (his owner and the insensitive crowd constantly ridicule Merrick), there are also scenes of dignity that show Merrick as a true ambassador of love and compassion.
I'm recommending The Elephant Man to everyone. This is even a great film for kids -- while Merrick's looks may frighten them at first, they'll soon see that he's a gentle and caring man who deserves respect just like anyone else. I think that, if nothing else, that's a lesson we can all take away from The Elephant Man in these troubled times.
The Elephant Man is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This picture is a tough call -- there are instances of grain and dirt in the picture, but it really enhances the mood of the film seeing as it's set in the early 19th century. Overall, the black, white, and gray levels all looked even and crisp with only the slightest amount of edge enhancement present. Certainly not a perfect print, but very nice nonetheless.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround in English and 1.0 Mono in French. The newly created 5.1 track includes a few instances of surround use, but overall they are subtle and not that noticeable. What I was mainly looking for in this track was that the dialogue, effects, and music were clear of any distortion or hiss, which they were. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
I was surprised to find a few nice extra features on this edition of The Elephant Man. The first is a "retrospective by the cast and crew" including actor John Hurt, make-up man Christopher Tucker, director of photography Freddie Francis, producers Jonathan Sanger and Mel Brooks, plus a few other principles from the cast and crew. This retrospective is moderately in depth and runs about thirty minutes. A lot of information is divulged during this feature, and I was glad that Paramount included it on the disc.
Next up is an interview with make-up artist Christopher Tucker. Tucker shows off his original head model of the Elephant Man, as well as discusses some of the difficulties in making the film and using rubber prosthetics. A "narrated photo gallery" includes some behind-the-scenes pictures from the film (as well as the original skull of John Merrick) that are narrated by Christopher Tucker. Finally, there is widescreen theatrical trailer for The Elephant Man.
What the...no scene selections?!? What is THAT all about? Listen up Paramount (and anyone else reading this): we always want scene selections, no matter what movie it is. Form what I recall this is David Lynch's fault -- on The Straight Story's liner notes Lynch mentions that he abhors scene selections because he wants folks to watch his film from beginning to end, not in sections. I say "blah" to that!
This is a great movie and very deserved of its eight Oscar nominations. I think that everyone should see The Elephant Man to witness what true beauty is. Paramount has done a nice job on this disc, though the exclusion of scene selections is absolutely dismaying!
This disc is not an animal! It's a DVD and it is free to go!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Retrospective by the Cast and Crew
* Narrated Photo Gallery
* Theatrical Trailer
* Interview with Academy Award Winning Make-Up Artist Christopher Tucker
* Elephant Man and Medical Anomalies Homepage