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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 7/26/02



The Elephant Man
1980 (2001) - Paramount

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Elephant Man Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A/B-

Specs and Features

123 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ???), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, The Elephant Man Revealed featurette, Christopher Tucker's Workshop featurette, narrated photo gallery, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (1 chapter), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0 surround) and French (2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

David Lynch's career path has taken so many twists and reached so many peaks and valleys, that you really can't call it a path anymore. Not with a straight face, anyway. Lynch abandoned any pretense of a traditional Hollywood career a long time ago. A familiarity with his subsequent work makes watching his second film, The Elephant Man, all the more fascinating. Back in 1980, Lynch was just beginning to make his way as a filmmaker, but had already found a style distinctly his own through his experimental short films and the 1978 cult hit Eraserhead. This cinematic voice reverberates through every frame of The Elephant Man. Even today, The Elephant Man remains one of Lynch's very best films and certainly one of his most accessible.

The film is based on the true story of John Merrick, discovered by Dr. Frederick Treves on display as a circus freak and billed as the Elephant Man. Treves teaches anatomy at London Hospital and is immediately overwhelmed by the wide array of physical deformities suffered by Merrick. Treves is intrigued by Merrick as a specimen, but assumes him to be an imbecile. Even so, when Treves discovers that Merrick is savagely beaten and misused by Mr. Bytes, the proprietor of the attraction, Treves arranges for Merrick to be given shelter at the hospital. Once there, Treves is astounded to learn that Merrick is in fact quite literate and his misshapen body houses the soul of a true English gentleman. Word of London Hospital's new patient spreads and Merrick again finds himself the center of attention, greeting visitors from the highest echelons of society. Treves now begins to wonder: is he any better than any of the others who've exploited Merrick for their own benefit? Merrick seems happier than he's ever been, but why did Treves bring him to the hospital in the first place?

The cast of The Elephant Man includes some of the most distinguished actors of all time, including Sir John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Wendy Hiller and Freddie Jones as Bytes. But the brunt of the film rests on Anthony Hopkins as Treves and John Hurt as Merrick. Their work in this film ranks among the best of both their careers. Hopkins expertly conveys the warring feelings of ambition and compassion that Treves struggles with. As for Hurt, he's extraordinary, completely buried beneath prosthetic makeup that renders him totally unrecognizable. John Hurt is the heart and soul of this film. It is virtually impossible to remain unmoved by his performance. Also contributing to the film's success are Freddie Francis's breathtaking black-and-white cinematography and the haunting score by John Morris. And while David Lynch is widely renowned as an expert sculptor of cinematic mood, The Elephant Man shows that he is equally capable of capturing simpler human emotion. The Elephant Man would remain Lynch's most affecting and deeply moving film until 1999's The Straight Story, which in many ways strongly resembles this one.

Around the time Mulholland Drive was being released in 2001, I read an interview with Lynch in which he took the reporter on a tour of his Los Angeles studio. One of the things that Lynch showed off with pride was the work being done on the DVD version of The Elephant Man. The pride was understandable, as this disc looks and sounds exquisite. For my money, you just can't beat a really good transfer of a black-and-white picture. When done properly, DVD shows off black-and-white better than anything, and The Elephant Man absolutely demonstrates that. At its most striking, Francis's photography resembles Victorian engravings. This transfer captures all the rich blacks, subtle greys and fine, almost tactile details the image has to offer. The print is blemish-free, but when Lynch and Francis intend for grain to be a part of the picture, it is there. I was not bothered by any digital artifacting or mild haloing at all. Sound, of course, is a key component of David Lynch's work, so you can be sure that the 5.1 remix featured here comes with the director's seal of approval. It's generally very effective, although it won't win any points for subtlety. When needed, the surround and subwoofer channels truly fill the room. It's a very respectable remix and it made me long to get Lost Highway released on DVD - a film that I seem to recall features one of Lynch's most interesting soundscapes.

While the bonus features are not particularly extensive (and since the disc is not advertised as a full-fledged special edition, there's no real reason they should be), everything that is offered is a keeper. The Elephant Man Revealed is a brief but informative 30-minute documentary featuring new interviews with John Hurt, Freddie Francis, makeup designer Christopher Tucker and producers Jonathan Sanger and Mel Brooks (that's right, Mel Brooks. Get over it.). I wasn't surprised that Lynch himself was not interviewed, but it is a little unfortunate that Anthony Hopkins declined to be interviewed. The other featurette spotlights Tucker's makeup, including a look at his workshop and a photo gallery (narrated by Tucker) that includes shots of Hurt in the makeup chair and John Merrick's actual skeleton, which Tucker used as a reference. These are all worth checking out, as is the trailer, which will give some idea of how bad this movie could have looked. Oh... and as has become the norm with Lynch, there are no chapter stops. I know this infuriates some people, but I really don't mind at all, since I almost never use chapter stops anyway. The only thing that surprises me is that Lynch seems to be the ONLY director who has banned chapter stops from his discs.

David Lynch is a brilliant filmmaker - one of my favorites - who too often seems to be dismissed as an intellectual weirdo. He may well be an intellectual weirdo, but that shouldn't stop you from enjoying his films. Whenever I meet someone who can't quite embrace Lynch's more esoteric movies, like Mulholland Drive or Eraserhead, I point them toward The Elephant Man and The Straight Story. Paramount's DVD release of The Elephant Man is a big step in the right direction for this studio. A virtually flawless transfer of a great film and the inclusion of some solid extras on a non-special edition disc suggest that maybe they're starting to get the hang of this whole DVD thing after all.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com




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