Welcome to Rewatch Club! In this feature, I will be watching and blogging about each film in an entire franchise or series, starting with the David Lynch filmography in chronological order. BE FOREWARNED! There will be spoilers after a certain point in the blog post. It will be noted in bold text, with an image placed directly after, but this is a direct warning for fast scrollers.
And so the Rewatch Club continues! Last time I talked about David Lynch’s first film Eraserhead in a post that can be found here.
The Elephant Man is absolutely not what I expected out of a follow up to the intensely weird and often trippy Eraserhead. Especially given Lynch’s reputation as a purveyor of the odd and the macabre, I was genuinely surprised at his sophomore effort being so… human. Still, while it was not quite as interesting as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man is still very much worth looking into, mostly on the strength of the two lead performances from John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins.
SPOILER WARNING! After the box art image below, everything can be considered a spoiler for The Elephant Man‘s narrative and themes!
The problem with The Elephant Man being such a straight ahead film is that there is ultimately a lot less to unpack and talk about than there was with Eraserhead. So I imagine this post will end up a lot shorter than the last one.
The one big carry over from Eraserhead is the look of the thing. Lynch once again opted to shoot in stark black and white, and it’s a decision that served him well, as it renders the Victorian London backdrop gorgeous and oppressive in equal measure. The decision to not use any colour at all is one that alienates the viewer, in the same way that the John Merrick character feels alienated from the society he so very much wants to be a part of.
The other big part of this aesthetic is the makeup of John himself. Reminiscent in places of the strange mutant baby or the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead, John Merrick’s appearance is initially horrifying, as the film sets up a slow build to the true revelation of his horrific form. And yet, something shifts as the movie goes on. The makeup itself doesn’t change, and neither does the shooting style, yet somehow John becomes less and less ugly throughout. I attribute it to a tragic performance by John Hurt, who gives the character of Merrick a gentle humanity.
And that’s to say nothing of Anthony Hopkins. He is, of course, better known for playing a doctor of a more sinister type, but his performance as Frederick Treves is brimming with compassion and warmth, while managing to raise questions as to whether his intentions towards Merrick are pure, or if he is simply exhibiting Merrick as his old circus masters used to, albeit in a more high class manner.
Truthfully, there is not a huge amount left to say about The Elephant Man. It tackles its themes of isolation and victimisation well, and I can imagine anyone that has been bullied in their lives will find something to identify with in Merrick. The film occupies a very specific place in the Lynch canon, perhaps when he was at something of a career crossroads, regarding whether he would carry on with more straightforward studio fare, or carve out his own smaller niche as he did with Eraserhead, something that I can only imagine will merit a bit more discussion when I go on to the next feature in his filmography, Dune.