Blu-ray Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN Criterion Release Stuns
In this crazy industry, it's often someone with at least a semblance of power that can give a filmmaker his or her big break. After all, not all filmmakers come from rich, connected families (though it helps immensely and this industry in particular is highly class driven).
In the case of the uber-talented American director David Lynch, it was powerhouse comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles) who watched Eraserhead in preparation to meet the then-young, AFI-educated director. Brooks loved it, hugged Lynch, and the rest is film history.
Today, we're reviewing the excellent (and very sad)1980 film Brooks and Lynch made together, The Elephant Man. It's recently released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in a wonderful little package.
Based on a real case, the film stars John Hurt (I, Claudius, Alien, 1984) as John Merrick in the titular role, in addition to Sir Anthony Hopkins (Magic, The Silence of the Lambs) as the Doctor Frederick Treves, the surgeon forever trying to help the unfortunate soul. Brooks' then-wife (RIP) Anne Bancroft (The Graduate, The Miracle Worker), John Gielgud (Arthur, Murder on the Orient Express), and Wendy Hiller (The Cat and the Canary, Pygmalion) round out the fantastic cast.
Set in Victorian London, Merrick is forever accosted by crowds, bad people, and downright criminals on account of his extreme deformities, which began as growths (theoretically) when he was only two years old. For the film's purposes, we see him in his mid-twenties, near the end of of his life. We see him struggle for dignity, friendship, and bodily autonomy. The film has a simple plot, but it's how things happen that matter in stories like these.
If you don't take my word that this dark drama is deeply touching, maybe the fact that the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards will convince you. Although Lynch's second feature didn't win any, Oscar noms for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Writing: Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score carry a lot of weight.
Like the filmmakers, I'm flummoxed as to why the film's cinematographer, Freddie Francis, was NOT nominated. (Francis lensed films like the 1991 Cape Fear remake and Glory, but was also well-known for being among the best of the Amicus and Hammer Horror directors.)
Within the booklet included with this release, it's stated that while Lynch and company were restoring this soundtrack, they found that the 5.1 decode had resulted in losing elements, and so they went back to the original magnetic stock mix.
The sound is mostly pretty good, but there are times when it's difficult to tell what's being sad, both due to muffling as well as the intentionally muddy dialogue from Hurt's character as a result of his deformity.
The picture, however, is excellent, absolutely gorgeous. I only noticed one very short instance of flickering in one quick shot. Otherwise, the images are rich and pristine; this restoration was created from the original 35mm negative and Lynch worked with FotoKem in Burbank on the color correction. As for the extras, some of which have previously been unavailable, they are listed below:
Director-Approved Special Edition Features
• New 4K digital restoration
• Director David Lynch and critic Kristine McKenna reading from "Room to Dream," a 2018 book they co-authored
• Archival interviews with Lynch, actor John Hurt, producers Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sanger, director of photography Freddie Francis, stills photographer Frank Connor, and makeup artist Christopher Tucker
• Audio recording from 1981 of an interview and Q&A with Lynch at the American Film Institute
• The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed, a 2001 documentary about the film
• Joseph Merrick: The Real Elephant Man, a 2005 program featuring archivist Jonathan Evans
• Trailer and radio spots
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• PLUS: Excerpts from an interview with Lynch from the 2005 edition of filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch, and an 1886 letter to the editor of the London Times concerning Merrick, by Francis Culling Carr Gomm, chairman of the London Hospital
•New cover by Sister Hyde
I appreciated all of the interviews here, as well as the featurette on the real-life historical figure on which the film is based, Joseph Merrick (changed from John). Lynch and McKenna read from their "Room to Dream" book for around 70 minutes, which is about Lynch's life, his memories, art, and filmmaking process.
The included booklet has some interesting snippets from interviews, in addition to a reprint of a letter sent to The London Times in 1886 by the chairman of the London Hospital; that in itself is an interesting time capsule to behold.
To watch a trailer and learn more about this Criterion release of The Elephant Man (or add it to your home video library), head to their site here.