Updated: May 11
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
John Hurt received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his moving portrayal of Englishman John Merrick - “The Elephant Man,” while Anne Bancroft plays actress Mrs. Kendal, one of Merrick’s biggest supporters.
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“THE ELEPHANT MAN: 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, 1980, PG
Best extra: Film journalist Ian Haydn-Smith hosts a British Film Institute Q&A with producer Jonathan Sanger (4K disc)
IT STARTED as a simple conversation between Hollywood insider Jonathan Sanger and his babysitter. Before heading out on a night on the town the sitter told the assistant director – who was working with producer/director Mel Brooks – her boyfriend had a script. “Everybody has a script in Hollywood,” says Sanger during the Q&A recorded in 2018. “And, if they don’t have a script they have a headshot. Everyone wants to be a writer or an actor.”
He got the script and stuffed it away in a drawer and didn’t think about it for a number of weeks. Eventually, the babysitter took a better paying job and asked Sanger if he had read the script? He pulled the script out and it was simply titled, “The Elephant Man.”
“Immediately I started reading. It was a heavy 200-page script and I loved the story and I called her up,” he said. The script had been written by Christopher Devore and Eric Bergen.
Their script was based on British/American anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s 1971 book, “The Elephant Man, A Study in Human Dignity,” which focused on the life of imprisoned Joseph “John” Merrick and his malformed body. The movie opens as Victorian physician Dr. Frederick Treves played by Anthony Hopkins searches for “The Elephant Man,” at a London “makeshift freak show,” says Kim Newman in her essay featured in the 64-page booklet. Merrick’s body had so many physical deformities and fleshy tumors – most were frightened by his appearance.
(1&2) Victorian physician Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) searches for “The Elephant Man” at a London freak show. Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones) is Merrick's abusive owner/business partner. (3) Dr. Treves conducts emergency surgery on a man injured from a piece of machinery.
“He was a little man below average height and made to look shorter by the bowing of his back. The most striking feature about him was his enormous and misshaped head. The right arm was of enormous size and shapeless. It suggested the limb of the subject of elephantiasis. The other arm was remarkable by contrast. It was not only normal but was, moreover, a delicately shaped limb covered with fine skin and provided with a beautiful hand which any woman might have envied.” – Dr. Frederick Treves
Sanger quickly optioned the script and commits to making “The Elephant Man” his debut movie as a producer for Brooks’ new film company Brooksfilms. “I knew nothing of the process of what it would take to get it made,” says Sanger.
Director David Lynch got involved after Sanger watched “Eraserhead” (1977) Lynch’s first film and the two were introduced by mutual friend Stuart Cornfeld, who was Brooks’s personal assistant. “I needed to meet this guy who made this crazy movie,” says Sanger. “There was something about him that I immediately gravitated toward. He’s a very engaging man.” The decision to film in black and white – just as Brooks had done with “Young Frankenstein” (1974) was to minimize the tricky challenge of the make-up worn by John Hurt as Merrick, who had just finished his terrifying performance in Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft would play actress Mrs. Kendal, one of Merrick’s biggest supporters.
Newman writes, “the world of “The Elephant Man” is Lynchian – from the brickwork bowels of “Eraserhead” to the starry void above “Twin Peaks” – overlaid on Dickens, Hammer Films, steampunk, and BBC quality dramas.”
It received eight Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenwriting based on another medium, Art Direction, Best Costume, Film Editing, and Original Score. Oddly it didn’t win a single golden statue that March night in 1981. Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” was the surprise big winner knocking off Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.”
(1-3) Dr. Treves pays Mr. Bytes to see “The Elephant Man,” and is shocked by seeing Merrick's malformed body, which brings tears to his eyes. (3&4) Merrick arrives at the London Hospital in Whitechapel for further examination by Treves.
The original 35mm camera negative was scanned in TRUE 4K, while the folks at L’lmmagine Ritrovata in Paris and Bologna handled the 40th-anniversary restoration cleanup work, which was supervised by Lynch.
The 16-bit HDR toning was applied at Fotokem in Los Angeles and the results are PURE cinematic magic. The blacks are deeper than anything you’ve seen, and it rivals the work Universal and Paramount produced for Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” our best 4K disc of 2018 and “It’s a Wonderful Life” a top-five 4K from last year. Natural film grain is ever-present and controlled, while the highlights and mid-tones are right on target giving you a full spectrum of gray-scale from top to bottom. Overall sharpness is excellent – especially the wide shots giving clarity from the foreground to the background. Tight shots are extremely detailed with facial markings and costume texture.
A six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack highlights the Oscar-nominated score by John Morris, which includes several carny-jingles and the rest are full orchestrated music, but the climax is Samuel Barbar’s classic “Adagio for Strings.” Sound effects are sparse and most evident during the dramatized opening of an elephant causing Merrick’s mother to fall while she’s pregnant.
(1) Dr. Treves brings Merrick to the Pathological Society of London. (2) Afterward, he admits Merrick into the London Hospital. (3) Filming in England gave the production access to a great number of character actors including John Gielgud as hospital chairman Carr Gomm. (4) Nurse Nora (Lesley Dunlop) reacts to seeing John Merrick for the first time.
The three-disc box set from Studiocanal is only released in the U.K. at this point, while the 4K disc will play on any 4K Ultra HD player. Two years ago Studiocanal released “The Deer Hunter” in 4K only in the U.K., and it's finally coming stateside with a release via Shout! Factory in May.
The additional bonus Blu-ray, which houses the archive extras is coded for European Region B players. If you have an All-Region Blu-ray player you can switch the Region code from A to B to spin the disc. There you'll find 45-minutes of interviews with David Lynch and actor John Hurt, as they recall the origins of the production and depiction of Merrick. A 20-minute featurette on the real Elephant Man, still photographs, and another interview with Lynch.
The 4K disc includes the Sanger Q&A and an interview with still photographer Frank Connor who made the publicity photos for the film. The booklet includes three more essays, publicity photographs, the model of Mainz Cathedral that Merrick made while a resident at the hospital, and his hat and one-eyed veil.
And not to forget a gatefold pop-up of the cathedral.
– Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
“But the film’s indisputable emotional power is, in large part, a result of this very abstraction: The Elephant Man, particularly in the final act, exerts an almost trancelike grip on an audience, combining image, sound and story to produce a devastating gut reaction.” – Author Tom Huddlestone, featured essay
(1) The night porter (Michael Elphick) of the London hospital. (2) Mr. Bytes wants the Elephant Man back. (3) John Merrick recites the 23rd Psalm. (4) Mrs. Kendal reads about John Merrick in the newspaper.
(1) John Merrick returns to England from Belgium. (2) A gang of men surrounds Merrick in the Men's Restroom at the London train station. (3) Merrick is seated with Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra of Wales (Helen Ryan). (4) The crowd at the theater gives John Merrick a standing ovation.