|By Joshua Zyber
August 7, 1999
Prior to his G-rated work on The Straight Story for Disney, The Elephant Man could be considered David Lynch’s most conventional feature. There are no gas-huffing psychopaths, no incestuous child-abusers, no supernatural overtones, no fractured identities, and very little surrealistic imagery. As only Lynch’s second feature film, coming right on the heels of the avant-garde and highly idiosyncratic Eraserhead, the film was accused by some of its more extreme critics (read: Roger Ebert) as being a sell-out, the product of the compromised values of a once-promising young talent.
This is, of course, a load of crap.
Fortunately the movie was accepted and embraced by the majority of viewers who saw it. The film made a tidy profit and was nominated for several major awards. Even many of those who dislike Lynch’s other works (read: Roger Ebert) will generally list The Elephant Man among the best films of the 1980s.
The narrative is straightforward and somewhat formulaic, but regardless it is a good formula and works quite well. The script was written with intelligence and the film made with considerable artistry. What shines through here that is lost even in Lynch’s more personal films is the humanity and sympathy for the characters. Based on the true story of John Merrick, a man so deformed by birth defects and various genetic abnormalities that he was deemed too repulsive even for the carnival circuits of Victorian London, the film’s basic “Freaks are people too” theme fits instantly well among the rest of Lynch’s canon. But here the story’s moral is told with eloquence and restraint, and the film manages to bypass much of the controversy and audience-alienation that many of Lynch’s other works are accused of.
Anthony Hopkins reportedly did not get along well with Lynch on the set, and even accused him of incompetence afterwards, but regardless gives a terrific performance as the good doctor who means well but ends up exploiting his famous patient unintentionally. John Hurt is saddled with the burden of extensive makeup prostheses and tries to force out a memorable performance by playing the character as a wide-eyed child. The result is sometimes mawkish, but not significantly enough that it detracts from the drama.
Despite the film’s critical acclaim and enduring popularity, Paramount chose many years ago to release the picture on VHS and laserdisc only in a badly cropped pan & scan transfer, which they never remastered for either format. It certainly took long enough, but the Japanese infatuation with David Lynch finally paid off in the form of a letterboxed laserdisc from Pioneer Japan.
And what a fantastic job they’ve done! Those who may be familiar with the film only from its previous home video editions may think of it as a grainy black & white movie with washed out contrasts, duplicating the image quality of the standard poster art. For years I assumed that this was the intention of the cinematography, to evoke the turn-of-the-century period with grungy and dated photographic techniques. This turns out not to be the case at all. The new disc is a revelation. The image is extremely sharp and smooth, with vibrant contrasts, an exceptional gray scale, and very little grain. The beautiful black & white photography by Freddie Francis harkens back to the best studio work of the ‘30s and ‘40s and this disc shows it off with exacting precision. There are very few errant scratches and the source material has been maintained in nearly pristine condition with almost no age-related damage of any kind. Had the movie been produced this year, rather than back in 1980, it could not have hoped for a better image transfer.
Even more importantly, the picture has finally been restored to its original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio. The sense of widescreen composition, an art lost to many contemporary cinematographers, is extraordinary. What gains the most from the additional picture information is the level of detail present in the production design, which better realizes the period setting with the entire picture on display.
The Elephant Man was not designed as a blockbuster action picture, so you won’t be hearing any deep bass explosions or zinging split-surround sound effects. The audio on this disc is, however, strong and clear with a precise detailed clarity. John Morris’ circus-themed musical score sounds great.
The laserdisc release has Japanese subtitles which appear entirely below the letterboxed image and are not distracting in the slightest. The movie runs just over two hours long and is spread evenly to three sides in CLV. There are unfortunately no supplements (I was really hoping for a trailer) and the disc jacket, sadly not a gatefold, uses the standard grainy poster art on the front cover.
It only took Paramount 21 years, but in December of 2001
they finally decided to remaster this title in its full letterboxed aspect
ratio for their DVD release. Better late than never, Paramount!
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