David Lynch’s heart-wrenching adaption of the life of Joseph Merrick finally arrives on Blu-ray in a brilliant 4K restoration
The Elephant Man follows the story of John (né Joseph) Merrick (John Hurt), a 21-year-old man suffering from congenital birth deformities that permanently enlarged portions of his skull and skeleton. Initially exhibited as nothing more than a circus freak under the cruel showmanship of Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), he is rescued by Royal London Hospital physician Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), where John is given not just proper medical attention, but a care and dignity that’s evaded him for most of his existence.
Regarded as the sophomore feature that catapulted its director from the arthouse of Eraserhead to mainstream audiences, The Elephant Man has developed the unintentional legacy of being one of David Lynch’s most accessible, audience-friendly films. Nothing could be further from the truth — while The Elephant Man is definitely more straightforward in terms of storytelling, much of Lynch’s power to both confound, horrify, and evoke other visceral reactions from his audience remains on full display here. Set near the turn of the century in Victorian England, huge factories have begun belching black smoke in the sky, coating everyone below with soot; workhouse employees are regularly chewed up by the machines they tend to; and the only respite for the poor, though frequented by the perversely curious upper class, is to gawk and jeer at those in traveling freak shows — for at least they have it worse. It’s a world that treats all of its inhabitants as inhumanely disposable — but what’s more horrific is how even under these conditions, there’s the compulsion to lift oneself up by keeping others downtrodden.
While the film is free of the bizarre babies and radiator women of Eraserhead, to say nothing of Twin Peaks’ Bob or Mulholland Drive’s Man Behind Winkie’s later in Lynch’s career, there’s still monstrous forces at work throughout The Elephant Man. They’re found in everything from a quickly-averted glance, to a shutdown of a freak performance in the name of decency, to a mobbing throng of onlookers eager to get a peek underneath Merrick’s self-imposed one-eyeholed hood. At the same time, though, a deeper understanding of Merrick’s condition offers not just a deeper glimpse of the very human man beneath it — the act of understanding and empathizing with Merrick helps those around him reconnect with their own sense of goodwill. Confronted with Merrick nearly being ejected from the hospital, Treves and the hospital staff manage to engender the compassion of everyone from notable actresses (Anne Bancroft) to her majesty Queen Victoria herself. Throughout, Merrick also finally gets the opportunity to participate in aspects of the world long denied him — he showcases not just a knack and appreciation for conversation, but for art, architecture, and theater.
One of the most remarkable achievements of The Elephant Man is that it never roots itself in one singular perspective, let alone the perspective of the titular character. It opens with Treves’ search for Merrick in a back alley and continues his pursuit of his potential new patient, but then lingers with Merrick in the hospital as the initially cold staff either overcome or sink deeper into their surface repulsion of him. We also stick alongside Merrick’s cruel original caretaker, his street urchin lackey, and the other circus “freaks” who at one point lead Merrick to his own emancipation. Lynch’s roving eye, helmed here by DP great Freddie Francis, remains steadfastly equally empathetic to everyone in the film — moments of compassion are found for them all, while each of them are defined by how much compassion the characters dole out in return. That’s not to say that love and decency are a commodity to be traded like other Victorian wares — rather that kindness is, as always, the most important virtue we can cherish and bestow, and what separates humanity from the horrible among us.
Absent for years in the American market and only available on Blu-ray overseas, The Elephant Man was vibrantly restored by Studiocanal in 2019, and has been given further incredible treatment for home video by The Criterion Collection. Criterion’s package collects all previously-extant Elephant Man-focused special features from Studiocanal’s past releases overseas. New to the set is a newly-recorded excerpt from Lynch’s memoir/film analysis book Room to Dream, presented here as an oral history of The Elephant Man’s production that’s incisively and hilariously told by Lynch and his book’s co-author, Kristine McKenna. Also included are print excerpts from Lynch on Lynch as well as the first widely-printed letter describing Joseph Merrick’s “elephant man” to the British public.
While the film may have a similarly-stacked 4K UHD release in Europe, make no mistake — this is by far the definitive release of The Elephant Man, amassing a king’s ransom of special features that provide a rich history of both the film and its real-life inspiration, while also presenting the film as vividly and viscerally as possible.
Criterion presents The Elephant Man in a 1080/24p HD video transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration of the original 35mm negative undertaken by StudioCanal in 2019, which was supervised by David Lynch and digital colorist and frequent Lynch collaborator George Koran. English SDH subtitles are provided for the feature film, while special features go unsubtitled. As with Lynch’s other Criterion releases, there are no chapter stops provided for the film.
Freddie Francis’ lush black-and-white cinematography is lovely displayed here — the softer shadows of The Elephant Man’s previous releases now take on a richer, sharper gradient, as evidenced in the film’s opening freak show sequence and the foggy cobblestoned streets of London. Textures and reflections have greater detail — note in particular the alternating sterility and grime of the Royal London Hospital, as well as in the beads of sweat and furrowed brows of the doctors attending Merrick and the extensive makeup work on John Hurt’s Merrick.
A noted error in the StudioCanal restoration, a missing fade-to-black at 1:40:17, is also present on this disc as it was on the 4K UHD released in Europe this year.
Criterion presents The Elephant Man in a 2-channel stereo track sourced from the film’s original magnetic print master, restored in tandem with the film’s negative. While a 5.1 channel mix was created for the film’s original Blu-ray release abroad, this was a post-conversion undertaken from this original stereo mix. As such, Lynch, his restoration team, and the team at Criterion have chosen to present the mix for the film as closely to its original theatrical presentation as possible.
There’s an equally rich spectrum of sound design throughout the mix — one especially favoring richer bass thrums and the harsh, pitchy hiss of steam. Dialogue is crisp and clear, where previous releases sounded more muddled (especially in Merrick’s initial lines of dialogue).
- Room to Dream: A 70-minute audio recording of co-author Kristine McKenna and Lynch reading from their 2018 Lynch hybrid memoir/analysis, focused on the production journey of The Elephant Man — including the unconventional shepherding of Lynch and the film into the Hollywood system by semi-silent partner Mel Brooks; locating strange Victorian props (including the death cast of Joseph Merrick) across England; and fruitful collaborations with John Hurt vs. conflicting ones with Anthony Hopkins. A constant throughout is Lynch’s sincere, headstrong vision — one intimidated yet undaunted by the studio system pushing him forward.
- Archival Interviews with the film’s cast and crew, including 2009 interviews with David Lynch and lead actor John Hurt, a 2018 interview with stills photographer Frank Connor, and a 2019 BFI Q&A with producer Jonathan Sanger.
- David Lynch at the AFI: A 1981 audio recording of a Q&A between Lynch and colleagues at his film school alma mater.
- The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed: A 30-minute archival making-of featurette with much of the film’s cast and crew, including Mel Brooks and makeup supervisor Christopher Tucker.
- Joseph Merrick, The Real Elephant Man: An archival featurette featuring Royal London Hospital Museum archivist Jonathan Evans and a king’s ransom of photographs, letters, and other historical material surrounding the real-life case of Joseph Merrick.
- Mike Figgis and David Lynch: A 20-minute 2006 interview between Lynch and the director of Leaving Las Vegas circa the premiere of Lynch’s last theatrical feature, Inland Empire. Here, Lynch focuses on his process of creativity, his origins in painting and photography, and the patience required to develop ideas to their full potential.
- Clapper Board–John Hurt: A 1980 archival interview with John Hurt by Chris Kelley for UK’s Granada Television to promote the theatrical release of The Elephant Man.
- Skintricks–Christopher Tucker and John Hurt: Excerpts from a 1988 episode of a Dutch television program that features The Elephant Man’s lead actor and makeup designer discussing their approach in creating a functional re-creation of Merrick’s physique, accompanied with their extensive period reference material.
- Promotional Material: A theatrical trailer and 3 radio spots for the film’s U.S. release.
- Some Weird Breeze of the Essence of This Beautiful Soul: An excerpt from Lynch on Lynch, collecting interview pieces from 1993–1996 that feature Lynch’s recollections of making The Elephant Man.
- Some Fitting Place: An 1886 London Times letter by Royal London Hospital Director Francis Calling Carr Gomm (played by Sir John Gielgud in the film), beseeching the public’s assistance in their care of Joseph Merrick. This letter is one of the first, if not the first, widely-distributed accounts of Merrick and his condition.
The Elephant Man will be released on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection on Tuesday, September 29th.