Released in 1980, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is the one Lynch film that found a mesmerizing middle ground between conventional Hollywood story structure and its director’s surreal dreamscapes. Yet today it seems on the verge of being forgotten, and that’s a shame. It’s an exceptionally unusual and engrossing work, a sort of midnight movie crossed with Masterpiece Theater.
The Elephant Man (currently streaming free for Amazon Prime subscribers) marked nearly the tail end of what we think of as Seventies cinema, an era in which daring Hollywood directors were stretching the leash as far as they dared. In 1980 they got sharply yanked back. Within a three-month period, three major productions were released in black-and-white: Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories from United Artists (UA) in September, followed by The Elephant Man from Paramount in October and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull from UA in November. The lack of box-office appeal of the UA films, combined with the spectacular failure of Heaven’s Gate, also in November and also from UA, sank that studio. (Its remains were sold to MGM.) Chastened, all of the studios quickly rethought the wisdom of indulging artists, particularly those who wanted to pull audience-repelling stunts such as filming in black-and-white. American filmmaking turned more docile and formulaic, yielding the absolute nadir of quality since the 1920s (roughly 1984–86). Then the artistically ambitious films split off to form their own camp in budget-conscious independent cinema, where they remain today.
One of those films I’ve just named actually made money, though: The Elephant Man. Shot for $5 million, it earned $26 million at the U.S. box office, or $79 million in today’s dollars. It also received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Though it won none, it made its mark on Oscar history in a category in which it was not even nominated. So groundbreaking were the makeup effects used to transform John Hurt into the hideously deformed Victorian circus freak Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film) that there was a mini-uproar that there was no way for the Academy to recognize them. So the Oscars added a new category for best makeup the following year. As for Lynch, at the time he was so little-known that Mel Brooks (whose company produced The Elephant Man) had never heard of him. Just three years earlier Lynch had made the bizarre, logic-shattering, no-budget pothead favorite Eraserhead. After The Elephant Man he was invited to the big dance of blockbuster filmmaking. He promptly stank up the dance floor (Dune, 1984) and never returned to it.
The Elephant Man is an uncanny experience, beginning and ending with gorgeously unsettling abstractions in the style of Eraserhead. In between, it’s breathtakingly immersive. Lynch keeps a hush over everything but is meticulous about the faintest details of Victorian background noises such as the groans in the guts of a building or the fizzing of a gaslight. Movies set in Victoria’s reign almost invariably teemed with colorful pageantry and bold costuming. The look of these films became a visual cliché. Lynch went in completely the opposite direction, deploying sober, funereal clothing and that famously gloom-soaked expressionist photography by Freddie Francis. The film’s most famous line (“I am not an animal. I am a human being.”) is minimized by being uttered in a public men’s room in a train station by Merrick when he is barely visible behind a crowd.
What sets him apart is not that he is a noble, suffering soul but that he is an artist.
All of this counterintuitive stripping-down is in service of a kind of horror show of the psyche; Francis was primarily known for his work on the Hammer brand of cheesy but great-looking British monster movies of the 1960s and early ’70s. The Elephant Man is full of ugly, cruel people tormenting the grievously deformed Merrick, who at the outset of the film is the cowering, often-flogged captive of a circus showman in Victorian England who exhibits him in a cage to jeering onlookers. A kindly doctor, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), finds a place for him in a hospital, improves his health, and enables him to live in some peace and dignity. But as Merrick attracts the attention of a famous actress (Anne Bancroft) he becomes a societal darling of the well-shod, and Treves comes to fear that he has simply transported Merrick from one kind of exhibit to another. Instead of raging like an animal behind bars, he plays a dainty gentleman at tea parties.
For most of the movie, I found myself agreeing with Roger Ebert’s review: “I kept asking myself what the film was really trying to say about the human condition as reflected by John Merrick, and I kept drawing blanks.” The film doesn’t reveal its allegorical foundation until late, when Treves tells a night porter who has been bringing crowds in to laugh and gawk at Merrick, “You’re the monster. You’re the freak.” Yet we’ve already learned that Treves considers himself a sort of circus master as well.
Merrick is alone between these two groups, the nobs and the yobs. What sets him apart is not that he is a noble, suffering soul but that he is an artist: We see him painstakingly creating a model cathedral based only on the tip of the spire, which is the only part he can see out his window. In the final half-hour of the film he is transfixed and transported by a stage production. Not unlike Stardust Memories, Lynch’s work reflects morosely on the isolation and loneliness of the artist who is gaped at by the masses and feted by the elites but is at home among neither because neither feels what he feels. That theme is something of a self-pitying cliché, and yet Lynch takes such a novel path to it that the film has a hypnotic, transcendent force.