In a series of reviews and blog posts filed under the heading "Auteur Theory," I have made it a project to revisit the career of cult director David Lynch, rewatch his entire feature filmography in sequential order, and chart the progression of this iconoclastic artist through both his highs and lows.
"Auteur Theory" Article Index
"Freaks are one thing. There's no objection to freaks, but this is entirely different. This is monstrous."
After a grueling five-year production, David Lynch's avant-garde and highly surreal debut feature 'Eraserhead' was met with mostly negative reactions from mainstream film critics who couldn't make heads or tails of what it was about. 'Eraserhead' was also never a film destined to play in a lot of theaters or make much money. It was, however, exactly the sort of thing that can inspire a devoted cult following. The movie played midnight shows in Los Angeles for over four years. Among its fans was a producer named Stuart Cornfeld, who met with Lynch and told him about a project called 'The Elephant Man'. Knowing nothing else about it, Lynch was immediately inspired by the title and jumped at the chance to sign on.
At the time, Cornfeld worked for Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks), who wanted to expand beyond comedy into producing serious dramatic films. The subject matter of 'The Elephant Man' seemed right up Lynch's alley. All he had to do was convince the director of 'Blazing Saddles' that he was the right man for the job… based only on 'Eraserhead'. One can certainly understand his trepidation. Amazingly, Brooks became one of Lynch's strongest supporters and staunchly fought nervous studio executives to give the young auteur as much artistic freedom as he needed.
Thus, a relatively inexperienced art student with only one movie to his name – a bizarre and decidedly non-mainstream cult horror oddity – found himself in charge of a major studio production, shooting in a foreign country with a cast of respected British veterans from stage and screen (including Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud and Dame Wendy Hiller) under his command.
Under heavy (and generally excellent) makeup, John Hurt stars in the true story John Merrick (actually Joseph Merrick), a man so deformed by birth defects and genetic abnormalities that he was deemed too repulsive even for the carnival circuits of Victorian London. Downtrodden and abused, Merrick is discovered by physician Frederick Treves of the Royal London Hospital (Hopkins), who brings him in for medical examination, cleans him up and cares for him. Initially, Treves sees Merrick as only a specimen to be analyzed, and assumes that he must be mentally incompetent. He attempts to train the patient like an animal, teaching him to act presentable in company and speak lines fed to him. Soon, however, he learns that Merrick has a fully functioning mind, is literate, and has a rather sensitive soul.
As orchestrated by Treves, Merrick becomes a celebrity and the toast of high society, visited by the wealthy and privileged to have tea, gawk at his monstrous features, and pretend to make polite conversation. Eventually, Treves comes to realize that he has still treated the man more as curiosity than human being, and that the new life he's made for Merrick is little more than a high-class freak show. Treves' good intentions trigger a moral dilemma. He may have improved Merrick's physical quality of life, but at the expense of further exploiting and dehumanizing his famous patient.
'The Elephant Man' is often described as Lynch's most commercial and conventional film, mainly because it has a plot that people can easily understand on the first viewing and doesn't include any gas-huffing psychopaths, incestuous child-abusers or schizophrenic fractured identities. While that's a fair assessment in some respects (it's one of only two features that Lynch ever made as for-hire studio assignments), the movie still shares the director's distinct authorial voice and his recurring fascinations with freaks, lunatics and the horrors of industrial mechanization. The striking black-and-white photography by Freddie Francis and elaborate production design are richly textured and filled with intricate detail. And like anything he's made, Lynch evokes a palpable sense of atmosphere, with fascinating aural and visual cues layered throughout every scene.
At the same time, 'The Elephant Man' marries these elements to a relatively straightforward narrative that is one of Lynch's most accessible and least alienating. The script was written with intelligence and tells a compelling story with eloquence and restraint. It may be David Lynch's least personal production, but the film's humanity and sympathy for its characters shine through here more than in even his signature pieces. It therefore has managed to bypass much of the controversy that surrounds most of Lynch's other works.
The director's impeccable craftsmanship and steady hand with the potentially mawkish material have allowed the movie to remain one of his most acclaimed. 'The Elephant Man' was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Lynch) and Best Actor (John Hurt). Although it may not have won any of those trophies (it lost to 'Ordinary People' and 'Raging Bull'), the film's success officially put David Lynch on the cinematic map and announced him as a major talent. This was quite a fascinating turn of events for a man who only became a filmmaker in the first place because he wanted to make the subjects in one of his paintings vomit repeatedly.
North American distribution rights to 'The Elephant Man' are currently held by Paramount Home Entertainment. That studio last released the film on DVD back in 2001, but has shown no interest in issuing it on Blu-ray to date. In other parts of the world, the movie's rights are held by Studio Canal, which released it on Blu-ray in Europe and Australia through a host of distributors in late 2009.
Technically, the copy under review here was originally ordered from the UK. That disc, distributed by Optimum Home Entertainment as part of the Studio Canal Collection, appears to have gone out of print in the meantime. However, the comparable French edition from Studio Canal's own label is still in print and can be ordered from Amazon France. Aside from the text printed on the packaging, the disc itself is otherwise identical. Upon playback, a menu will prompt you to choose from a list of countries. The option you select will determine the studio logos and menu languages to follow. Choose either England or Australia for English menus.
Both the UK and French Blu-rays are packaged in a slim Digibook. A booklet inside the British edition contains an essay from Time Out London film critic Tom Huddleston. (I cannot confirm the contents of the French booklet.) The Blu-ray is coded for Regions A and B, and will function in any standard American Blu-ray player without need for region code modification.
Like all discs from the Studio Canal Collection, the music played over the Blu-ray's main menu is obscenely loud. No exaggeration, it's at least 20 dB louder than the movie. It's deafening. I strongly recommend that you mute your volume before the menu loads.
The Studio Canal Collection was created with the intention of being a European equivalent to the Criterion Collection. Sadly, the Blu-ray releases issued as part of this series have been very hit-or-miss in quality, mostly misses. Discs like 'Contempt', 'The Third Man' and 'Ran' are borderline unwatchable. Fortunately, 'The Elephant Man' falls more on the "hit" side of the spectrum.
The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is sourced from the same master as Studio Canal's earlier HD DVD edition from 2006. That HD DVD looked pretty good for the most part, and the Blu-ray benefits from some improvements in encoding quality.
The 2.40:1 image is not as sharp as I might like, but generally has a good sense of detail and a nice gray scale. The film's opening sequence has heavy grain by design, and the way it's been digitized here causes a noisy electronic texture. That clears up afterwards, and film grain in other parts of the movie looks fine. The source elements used for the transfer are in very good shape for their age, with only minor dirt or scratches. However, a small handful of shots (notably around the 15- and 25-minute marks) look dull and fuzzy, as if they were spliced in from a lesser-quality dupe print. Luckily, this is a very rare problem. Jaggedness and pixelation artifacts that plagued the HD DVD have cleared up in the new Blu-ray encode.
On the whole, the transfer may be a hair too bright. This is really only an issue during the first appearance of Merrick around the 14-minute mark. In prior video releases, Merrick had been obscured in heavy shadow during this scene, barely visible at all. Based on comments made by the director in the book 'Lynch on Lynch' published in 1997, that seems to have been the intent. The full extent of the character's deformity was meant to be revealed later. For whatever reason, the scene has been timed too brightly in the high-def transfer, which exposes blatant seams in the makeup and costume. To put things into perspective, this is a relatively minor complaint that's only truly problematic in the one scene.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack on the Blu-ray is a significant improvement over the European HD DVD edition from 2006. Like many of Studio Canal's early HD DVDs, that copy of 'The Elephant Man' suffered from a pitch increase similar to the effects of PAL speedup (even though the disc technically ran at the correct 24 fps speed). Characters sounded like they'd been huffing helium. That problem has been corrected here. The pitch of the Blu-ray soundtrack is fine.
Even though it may be encoded on disc in 5.1 format, the movie's sound mix is restricted to the front channels. This is not a mistake. The film was originally released to theaters in 1980 in Dolby Stereo. Even the 5.1 remix that David Lynch provided to Paramount for that studio's DVD release in 2001 lacked rear channel activity. (Over the years, Lynch has developed an aversion to surround sound, and deliberately shuts off the rear speakers on all of the audio tracks that he masters.) The Blu-ray retains a balance towards the front soundstage, which is appropriate for the film and the subject matter.
John Morris' lilting circus-themed score comes across well. Music is clear, with good distinction. The sound design by Alan Splet makes great use of atmospheric noises and ambience. The track may not shake the foundation of your house, but it occasionally has some effective low-end rumble. Dialogue is sometimes a little clipped or strident, but otherwise this is a very listenable soundtrack.
The Studio Canal Blu-ray contains a handful of featurettes that I believe first appeared on a bonus disc included with a DVD box set called 'The Lime Green Set', which was originally sold on the davidlynch.com web site.
'The Elephant Man' may be David Lynch's most mainstream and commercial film, but it's also a work of tremendous artistry and talent that manages to showcase many of the director's signature themes and obsessions.
While we wait for Paramount to unlock the movie from its vault here in North America, this Blu-ray edition from Studio Canal offers both strong technical qualities and some interesting bonus features. The disc is also Region A friendly and should function in any American Blu-ray player. Fans of the filmmaker will find this Blu-ray worth the trouble to import.