Film Review: The Elephant Man (1980)

Release Date: October 2nd, 1980 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch
Based on: The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves; The Elephant Man: A Study In Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu
Music by: John Morris
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Hannah Gordon, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Dexter Fletcher, Kenny Baker

Brooksfilms, Paramount Pictures, 124 Minutes

Review:

“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” – John Merrick

Few motion pictures are truly perfect. This is one of those few.

As far as I’m concerned, this is still the greatest thing that David Lynch has ever done. And while I like his visual style and artistic quirkiness, I’m not a big fan like many other film aficionados are.

That being said, this is his most normal picture. He doesn’t get overly bizarre and lost in trying to put his own dreams to celluloid. Here, he has a real story to tell and given a more defined framework, I think he excelled as a director with this movie above all of his others.

What’s strange about that, is that this is only his second feature film after the absolutely bonkers, shrill and disturbing nightmare known as Eraserhead.

The success of this film led to Lynch getting the offer to direct Return of the Jedi, which he turned down, as well as 1984’s Dune, which I like but ended up being such a bad experience for Lynch that he pretty much quit mainstream movies and went back to making bizarre, personal art films more akin to what he did with Eraserhead and his short films before that.

Anyway, this is a review of The Elephant Man and not a review of Lynch’s career.

I love that this was presented in black and white, as it gives it a truly timeless feel and it generates the same sort of aesthetic as many of the great classic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. It also has the same sort of cinematography, as it employs a chiaroscuro visual style with high contrast between light and shadow.

Given the film’s setting and the makeup of the title character, this visual style gives it a real majestic, classic cinematic feel that probably wouldn’t have been possible if this was released in color. It helps set the mood with the more horrific elements, while also giving the film a quality of old world naivete, which is important in allowing the audience to connect to the pure innocence of Merrick, the Elephant Man.

The picture is stupendously acted. Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt are absolute perfection in this and you really fall in love with both men through this incredibly emotional and very painful journey. But you also feel their emotion to the bone when the best parts of humanity find a way to outlast the worst parts. This is a film that is just as much about the darkness of humanity as it is about humanity’s light. That’s probably another reason why presenting this in black and white is so effective.

There are terrible human beings in this movie and frankly, it’s impossible to watch this and not be emotionally effected by that darkness. This is a really hard film to experience because of that but ultimately, a positive light does push the darkness back and while the ending is tragically sad, it’s also strangely satisfying knowing that the film’s subject left on his own terms in the only place he truly felt at home.

That being said, for me at least, this is one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had with a movie. It’s not something I can go back and watch often because it really does drain on your soul, even with the mostly positive outcome.

I have no idea what it is about this film that makes it a legitimate masterpiece. I think it’s simply a perfect storm of everything just working together, wonderfully.

The Elephant Man is truly cinematic magic in how it can give you both the worst of human nature and the best. It is an astounding, exhilarating and terrifying experience.

And again, it’s motion picture perfection.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: David Lynch’s earlier work, as well as other top notch period dramas of its era.