Elephant Man, The (1980)
Release Date: October 10th, 1980 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: David Lynch Actors: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Freddie Jones, Hannah Gordon
uxtaposing beauty and beastliness, a screaming, flailing woman is attacked by a snarling elephant – a fantastical story by a carnival barker to explain the creation of a human and pachyderm hybrid abomination. Smoke, slow-motion, still photographs overlapping live action movement, and other hallucinatory effects, aided by noirish black-and-white cinematography, introduce “The Elephant Man,” one of director David Lynch’s most acclaimed and uncommonly studio-produced projects. He takes a writing credit in adapting the screenplay from the true story origins, working with source materials that perfectly fit his knack for weirdness, resulting in an Academy Award-nominated film that can still be easily described as Lynchian.
Renowned London Hospital surgeon and anatomy lecturer Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) spies the horribly deformed “elephant man,” Englishman John Merrick (John Hurt), at a circus. Paying a handsome sum, he gets the abused, beaten, animalistic Merrick, who seems unable to communicate, to arrive at his office for an examination. He learns that the contorted, scarred, tumorous man is only 21, suffers from chronic bronchitis, mental imbecility, an enlarged skull, and useless appendages. Merrick has been a circus freak his entire life, kept in very poor conditions, and exploited and mistreated by filthy “business partner” Bytes (Freddie Jones).
The film uses horror movie gimmicks, such as shadows, brief glimpses of gnarled flesh, a mask with only one eyehole, the sudden revealing of Merrick’s face and body as a young nurse stumbles upon him, and heavy, distressed breathing, which further illustrates his striking physical monstrousness. Grotesque, gurgling sounds begin Merrick’s communications, but in time, he recites passages from the bible and “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s a heartrending transformation and one of many stepping stones for London society to gradually welcome his existence. At the same time, unavoidable concerns arise over an unhealthy exhibition to curious aristocrats and tragic opportunities for uneasy stares to begin all over again. Could Treves be just another form of Bytes?
The makeup effects are fantastic (Hurt is entirely unrecognizable), exuding not only appalling malformation and impairment but also heartbreaking piteousness. It’s equal parts scary and sad – a Frankenstein’s monster that can garner both fright and sympathy. The editing, however, leaves something to be desired; cutting or fading hastily from scene to scene leaves little time to absorb the various revelations and spectacles. But Hopkins once again demonstrates his phenomenally natural acting skills, while John Gielgud as the hospital governor, Hannah Gordon as Frederick’s wife, and Anne Bancroft as a generous theater socialite also provide notable performances. The heroes are heroic and the villains exceptionally vile. As the movie alternates between triumphantly hopeful, overwhelmingly emotional, and unbearably inhumane, aided by a valiant rescue and a stirring conclusion, it’s obvious that “The Elephant Man” is a movie that benefitted more from its characters and story than its construction and execution.
– Mike Massie