Studiocanal are launching their own streaming channel; if you’re tired of a meagre helpings of classic movies served up by streamers, it’s a collection that should revive even the most jaded cineaste. Studiocanal generously asked me to choose three classic films to write about and provided blu-ray access; the first of my three selections is David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.
Something of a formative text for this writer growing up, I first saw David Lynch’s 1980 film as a Sunday night ITV Movie Premiere is the early 80’s. The iconic poster held a certain mystery; a hooded figure, with no hint of what lay behind the mask. The Elephant Man is famously based on a real person, Joseph Merrick, and his story was already a hit play by the time that Mel Brooks decided to make this film. Knowing that audiences associated his name with comedy, Brooks wisely brought in fresh young talent to direct; David Lynch had a hit on the underground/late night circuit with Eraserhead, but working on a prestige picture like this was a massive step up; jumping from Jack Nance and an animated chicken to directing John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller and Anthony Hopkins. It was a gamble that paid off from the creative team, but also for audiences.
At the 1980 BAFTA awards, live on tv, they’d shown a brief clip in which John Hurt’s make-up as Merrick was fully revealed, and it was something of a shock to the system for casual viewers. Lynch wisely spends a good half hour building up to that reveal, opening with an experimental, arty sequence of Merrick’s mother giving birth, and a trampling of elephant feet. We then switch to Merrick’s horrible life as a circus freak, a tool of an avaricious master Bytes (Freddie Jones). But kindly doctor Treves (Hopkins) has gotten wind about Merrick’s condition, and manages to find a secure berth in a London hospital, a room that Merrick eventually calls home. While Bytes and Treves battle for Merrick’s future, a personality emerges from Merrick’s shattered body, a sweet and gentle soul that soon discovers both the pleasure and the pain of being understood for who he is.
The Elephant Man was received as an instant classic at the time, helped by the deep black and white photography of the great Freddie Francis, and the supporting cast of household name British thespians from Hannah Gordon, Michael Elphick, Patricia Hodge and some early Dexter Fletcher. Elphick’s turn in particular, as a janitor who uses his access to Merrick to make extra cash bringing drunken gawkers to his room, is particularly sinister; it’s agonising to see the innocent Merrick crushed into his own bed by two prostitutes for the entertainment of the crowd, while the gawkers smash the model of a cathedral that he’s been building so painstakingly.
That cathedral represents Merrick’s sense of his own rebuilding, a work that is fragile and vulnerable as Merrick himself; not long after the invasion of his personal space, Merrick decided to die by lying down on his bed as other men do, knowing that the act will snap his neck. It’s a rare film that ends not just with the protagonist’s death, but his suicide, and portraying that act as a transformative one is a big ask, but Lynch and Brooks somehow pull it off. After first seeing this movie, I was hugely impressed, but having solved the mystery, never returned for a rewatch over four decades. Returning a good 40 years later, The Elephant Man is a daring, sensitive, troubling movie about the freak we all fear lives inside of us, and our anxieties about how the world might see us; it was a classic of the time, and it’s still a must-see film today.
About STUDIOCANAL Presents
STUDIOCANAL Presents is the new streaming service from STUDIOCANAL, available now. From home-grown crowd-pleasers and world cinema greats, to acclaimed independent movies and modern and classic horror, STUDIOCANAL PRESENTS offers subscribers access to a wealth of exceptional film and series from its renowned and world-spanning library. A variety of new titles will launch on the channel every month, many of which can’t be streamed anywhere else in the UK. Fans can sign up via an Apple TV-compatible device for a seven-day free trial and subscribe directly to STUDIOCANAL PRESENTS for £4.99 a month. STUDIOCANAL PRESENTS is available through the Apple TV app on iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch, Mac, popular smart TVs from Samsung, LG, Sony, VIZIO, TCL, and others, Chromecast with Google TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices, and PlayStation and Xbox consoles.