The Elephant Man
With this poignant second feature, David Lynch brought his atmospheric visual and sonic palette to a notorious true story set in Victorian England. When the London surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) meets the freak-show performer John Merrick (John Hurt), who has severe skeletal and soft tissue deformities, he assumes that he must be intellectually disabled as well. As the two men spend more time together, though, Merrick reveals the intelligence, gentle nature, and profound sense of dignity that lie beneath his shocking appearance, and he and Treves develop a friendship. Shot in gorgeous black and white and boasting a stellar supporting cast that includes Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, and Wendy Hiller, The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Academy Awards, cementing Lynch’s reputation as one of American cinema’s most visionary talents.
Feeling like it has been a long time coming, The Criterion Collection gets around to releasing David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, presenting it on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. Criterion is using StudioCanal’s recent 4K restoration, which was in turn scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
If my praise towards this presentation comes off even a wee bit underwhelmed it’s only because I have already seen StudioCanal’s 4K UHD release of the title, which looks unbelievably good, just rich in texture and detail, and accompanied by gorgeous blacks and whites, superb grayscale, and excellent looking film grain. That picture looks incredible and it was always going to be hard for a high-def/1080 version to live up to it, which StudioCanal’s included (region B locked) Blu-ray showed itself.
The good news is that Criterion’s high-def version is, at the very least, comparable to the standard Blu-ray found in StudioCanal’s release. Though some long shots aren’t as sharp as others (which is also the same on StudioCanal’s Blu-ray) the image delivers acrisp black-and-white picture loaded with fine-object detail, nicely rendered grain, and excellent textures, all leading to a very pleasant, film-like image. On its own it improves over Paramount’s old DVD significantly and there is no contest when comparing those two. The restoration has also drastically cleaned up the film and I don’t recall a single blemish ever popping up, other than the distortions and what-not that can be found in the more dreamy sequences.
It’s a wonderful looking image in its own right and there’s nothing to complain about really: it’s a solid high-definition presentation and the film looks great. It’s just that the 4K version is drastically better not just in relation to detail and definition, but also in its delivery of blacks, shadow detail, and grays. They’re not subtle differences either. While Criterion has not made the jump to 4K yet, it may not be fair to criticize them for not making the jump to the format with this release; chances are very good Paramount (the film’s North American distributor) would not license them the film in that format to begin with. But even then it’s still a bit irksome knowing this isn’t all that it could be.
Criterion includes a 2-channel PCM stereo soundtrack. Interestingly this is a new soundtrack (that was also used on the recent StudioCanal release) that was created in 2019, with Lynch's participation, to be closer to the original theatrical mix. Lynch decided not to use the 5.1 remix that was created in the early 2000s because, when reviewing it, he felt it "lost something" with the extra channels.
I can't recall the 5.1 mix at the moment but this stereo presentation manages to still be a surprisingly immersive experience and it sounds absolutely wonderful. Though it can be hard to understand John Hurt (for obvious reasons) dialogue is sharp and clear otherwise, with wonderful fidelity and depth. Sound effects are rich with incredible range, the industrial effects being particularly sharp an nuanced. It’s spread out wonderfully and is free of noise and distortion. It’s almost a shame the 5.1 mix wasn't included as an option (just for comparison's sake) but it's still effective enough.
Whereas StudioCanal's 4K edition clearly delivers the better picture and its a draw between the two on audio, Criterion clearly beats that other edition in the supplements department. The only unfortunate drawback, similar to StudioCanal's, is there is quite a bit of repetition.
Other than the booklet, the pop-up packaging (which made that release a bit cumbersome) and a feature around a 2006 art exhibit of Lynch's work, Criterion’s release does carry over everything from the StudioCanal edition and at least replicates all of the video material found on Paramount’s previous DVD editions. Criterion also provides some new material, which includes the 70-minute audio recording of Kristine McKenna and Lynch reading from Lynch’s (I guess you can call it) autobiography Room to Dream. Playing over a still of the book, the two read from the portion covering The Elephant Man’s production, McKenna reading the very technical, journalistic portion of the “chapter,” getting into the details around how Lynch came to be involved with the film, followed by Lynch reading the portion that’s his own personal recollection. This essentially means you get to hear the same story twice, but once in a “matter-of-fact,” researched way along with a more personal fashion featuring few flourishes and additions. There’s plenty of more material on this disc around the making of the film and how Lynch managed to score the gig, and even if I’m not sold on how it’s presented here (I almost wish that it was instead presented as an alternate track over the film itself), this still manages to be a rather fun recollection, which is even more engaging once Lynch pops on after the 41-minute point.
The next few features are also found on the StudioCanal edition. First there is a 20-minute interview with John Hurt, recorded in 2009. The actor recalls being cast and then the physical toll the role took on him, particularly in make-up. He also recounts how Paramount executives didn’t know what to make of the film and his surprise at its success. This is then followed by a newer interview with stills photographer Frank Connor, recorded in 2019, who talks about the film’s look and the locations used, and how cinematographer Freddie Francis worked. He also covers his duties around photographing the film with both black-and-white and colour photography. Following all of this is then 24-minutes’ worth of footage with producer Jonathan Sanger talking about the film’s production during a 2018 event at the BFI. Though the story on how the script was brought to Mel Brooks’ attention is repeated ad-nauseam throughout the disc features, Sanger talks a little bit more about how he got the script from the babysitter he hired and how he was able to get Brooks to look at it. He then recalls bringing up Lynch and the work that went behind getting him hired on the film, which led to a painful (for Sanger) screening of Eraserhead for Brooks.
David Lynch then appears a surprising amount throughout this disc. There is a 25-minute 2009 interview with him recollecting the production, which opens with him repeating what he said in the “Room to Dream” feature word-for-word for not only around the nightmares he had in regards to the make-up (a task he originally took on himself before Christopher Tucker came in) but also on how he came to be involved, right down to how Mel Brooks hired him after seeing Eraserhead (Lynch didn't actually sit-in for that screening). Also here is a conversation between directors Mike Figgis and David Lynch, filmed in 2006, where Lynch talks about how he got into filmmaking (despite not being much of a film buff) and his experimentation with the medium. Those two interviews were on the StudioCanal edition, but Criterion also includes a 51-minute excerpt from an audio recording of Lynch at the AFI, recorded in 1981. It almost feels like the host isn’t sure what to make of him and his early answers because they jump to questions from the audience almost immediately, and much to my surprise, outside of a question around the baby in Eraserheard, Lynch ends up being very open and forthcoming about The Elephant Man (maybe because it’s a studio film) and seems to be enjoying himself. He also talks about the prospects of finally working in colour with his then-upcoming film, Dune, which he—amusingly in retrospect—seems pretty excited to be working on.
A couple of archival documentaries are then included: Joseph Merrick: The Real Elephant Man, a 20-minute feature that goes over Merrick’s real life based on what is known (not surprisingly the first half of the film isn’t entirely fact based), and then the 2001 documentary on the film’s making—which I believe was produced for the Paramount DVD—The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed, running around 30-minutes and featuring interviews with Sanger, Hurt, cinematographer Freddie Francis, make-up artist Christopher Tucker, and producer Mel Brooks. This latter documentary is in the same vein as a lot of made-for-DVD documentaries of the time but still manages to be insightful. It’s also the only place where we get interviews with Francis and Brooks, both of whom are only mentioned (always with praise, especially from Lynch) elsewhere. Both of these features are also on the StudioCanal edition.
Criterion then digs up a couple of archival features, first with a 12-minute, 1980 interview with John Hurt, who has the experience of the film a bit more fresh in his mind here compared to the other interviews he appears in on the disc. This is then followed by a 14-minute interview (also from 1980) featuring Hurt and make-up artist Christopher Tucker. This ends up replacing a similar feature found on the Paramount DVD (an interview and photo gallery featuring Tucker and his work), and it presents the two in Tucker's workshop talking about the prosthetics, their application, and the research that went into it (they were able to get their hands on the original cast of Merrick's head). This is accompanied by colour photographs taken of the original make-up applications, followed by Tucker—with the aid of Hurt—offering an example of how the prosthetics were applied. Both of these features are not found on any other release of the film that I know of.
Criterion then includes the film’s American trailer and then three radio spots.
Criterion includes a 36-page booklet for the film, though it differs significantly from what StudioCanal offered in theirs, maybe because Lynch was more involved in this. Where StudioCanal’s book offers some academic material (including an essay by Kim Newman) and content around the real Joseph Merrick (as well as press materials around the film), Criterion’s only significant inclusion, like their other Lynch releases, is an excerpt from the book Lynch on Lynch, where writer Chris Rodley and Lynch discuss the film. A really great inclusion, though, is a reprint of a letter written by the head of the London Hospital, Francis Culling Carr Gomm (played by John Gielgud in the film), to the Times in 1886 regarding Joseph Merrick.
Because of Lynch’s involvement, Criterion has also removed chapter stops (interestingly, the StudioCanal edition still has chapter stops) and the Timeline feature. Thankfully, the film still picks up where you left off if you stopped the film midway.
In all, this is one of the more stacked editions from Criterion for a Lynch film, it’s just that you will hear some of the same stories multiple times as you go through the material (like how Sanger got the script, how Lynch first met Brooks, how long it took for make-up, and so on). Otherwise, it satisfyingly covers the film's production.
NOTE: If one is considering picking up the StudioCanal 4K release, please be aware that while the 4K disc is region free, the majority of the supplements on that edition are found on a separate Blu-ray disc, which is locked to region B.
Criterion has put together a perfectly fine special edition for the film, the best one yet in North America. It looks fantastic, sounds great, and the supplements are excellent. It’s just disappointing that Criterion didn’t (or can’t) release the film in 4K.