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The Elephant Man

*****
1980

‘…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…’

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. 

The Elephant Man (1980)

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  1. My dad took me to see it (I was 10 years old), and it was the first time I remember crying in a movie theater (the “I’m a human being” speech). Plus, the scene where Hopkins sees Merrick for the first time (the camera stays on Hopkins’s face) is unforgettable. It’s still my favorite David Lynch movie.

    • I’d like to see other Lynch films where he sticks rigidly to telling a story; he does an amazing job here, but it’s very untypical of his output. Perfect mix of talent here, and the result is heartbreaking…

      • Lynch is a talented filmmaker (I love Lynch’s Elephant, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway), but he does have a tendency to be self-indulgent. Elephant proved that he could tell a linear story in a powerful way. The heartwarming The Straight Story is another atypically straightforward Lynch movie.

        • Good spot, that’s his other straightforward narrative. He can do it when he wants. Love the other stuff too, but he could tell a story for sure.

  2. You know, I think I may have to watch this based on the intensity of the comments section!

    And you’re right, the streaming selection of classic films is utter crap. I still have an old school Netflix account where they mail me discs – I get beat up at the school yard for it, but it’s the only way to get good movies via Netflix.

    • My guess is you’ll end up buying packages of channels rather than individual subscriptions. Right now, if you think of an old movie you want to see, chances are your handful of channels doesn’t have it right now.

      Even the sheer intensity of this comments section will not prepare you for this film.

    • Didn’t know they still did DVDs. I remember joining them last century it must be now to get disks only to discover you ended up with your 59th choice as all the ones you really wanted were gone.

      • I find that I get the movies I want more quickly than I used to. Less competition I suppose. Really a great, underutilized source for films. Also, if you’re patient, you can eventually get nearly every TV show from most other streaming services.

  3. Merrick and Ripper are two notables from East End and Victorians. Led to height of carny, Deformito- Mania, per Punch. Victorians ended up seeing disabled and deformed as machinery; doesn’t make it easier to watch, however, great film and even greater script and acting, not to mention sterling silver review!

    • And more information that I should have known yesterday. Lynch makes a huge deal of the discordant thrum of industrial machinery here, and there’s a scene in which Treves tends to a victim of a machine failure. That mechanistic society is one of a number of interpretations of Merrick’s condition. It’s a virtue of the film not to investigate Merrick’s backstory beyond the portrait of his mother that he cherishes, giving him a universal significance.

  4. I think I’ve seen this three times and every time it makes me bawl like a baby so I have snot running down my nose and everything. Just can’t take it. Haven’t seen it now in over a decade and don’t want to unless I need some cathartic therapy.

    • Catharsis is what I got for pushing through that unbearable scene in which Merrick’s home invasion goes bad. It’s just agonizing to see such inhumanity, although today’s social media runs it a close second. But it’s such a beautifully made film, a shame to ignore it…

    • So glad to hear that others feel the same; I feel that this has been neglected, not just by me, over the years, and it comes up fresh as paint in HD.

  5. OMG I’d wiped that from my mind. Was so upset seeing it and knowing it was a true story, copious weepery ensued. The cast-so good but Hurt was elevated. I am not sure I could watch this a second time, I don’t find it easy to watch the cruelty of the human race nowadays.
    Also- another fekN streaming service wanting our money?? Don’t they know there’s a cost of living crisis going on? It’s getting ridiculous.

    • I’d rather subscribe to one good one that half a dozen rammed with filler. And yes, this film is heartbreaking. I had to pause and go for a walk before watching the sequence of Merrick being assaulted and tormented in his sanctuary, and nearly skipped that scene just because it’s beyond painful to watch. But I forced myself, and made it to the other side. I’d avoided the film for 40 years, but it was an amazing film to re-watch if you can handle the genuine pathos.

      • Difficult to subscribe to just one when your fave TV series are split asunder. How the heck did The Walking Dead end up on Disney+?? Started out with that on Sky, then Netflix I think. Better Call Saul & Stranger Things on Netflix and The Boys (which is totally brilliant BTW) on Prime. Not sure why I have Apple TV think I got a free 6month sub for it and then didn’t cancel. Oh well!

        • I’m in several similar boats. What do I have to do to see Succession? Subscribe to NOW tv? I can barely keep track of what I’ve got. But yes, hearing that The Boys is something I should check out…

          • It is an absolute joy and just gets better each season – the third is up now. Tony Starr (who I loved in Banshee) acts his socks off, and the subversive script upending superheroes into commercial corruption is topper.

            • That’s what I’m hearing: always keen to see anything that deals with the here and now.

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