Picture a dimly lit black and white carnival filled with Victorian clad patrons wandering amongst caravans with beautifully painted previews of the freakish attractions that await inside. A dark, bearded carnival barker steps out and starts telling tall tales about one of the eight wonders of the world captured from the heart of darkest Africa. The patrons look onward with a mixture of glee and terror as the camera pans over to a hooded creature…more monster than man that is chained within. If this scene recalls to mind the work of Tod Browning’s Freaks or similar carnival-freak-exploitation cinema of the era you would not be wrong. This is the exact aesthetic that David Lynch is going for in his second film, 1980’s The Elephant Man.
Although the film is based on the life of real life “elephant man” Joseph Merrick (named John in the film), the movie is less concerned with historical fact and more with defining the norms and values of a society then and now. Merrick (John Hurt) is a man stricken with a congenital tumor disease at a very young age and through a cruel twist of fate ends up as a carnival sideshow. His “owner” (Freddie Jones) mistreats Merrick and invents a ridiculous backstory where his mother was stampeded by elephants leading to Merrick’s namesake and echoing his horrific visual condition. Merrick is rescued from this life by Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) who brings him to a London hospital. Merrick is thought to be mentally deficient at first but the doctor discovers that his hesitance to speak was a by-product of his abuse and that he’s, in fact, is capable of speech, reading, and even building models. Merrick is eventually accepted into Victorian society as more than just a sideshow due to his friendship with a noted actress (Anne Bancroft), but he never finds true happiness.
The movie diverges a bit from historical fact to heighten the drama. In reality, Merrick’s relationship with the freak show world was completely mutual and he was paid quite well for it. His friendly relationship with Dr. Treves, however, was based in a true story. Hopkins portrays this character with a heightened degree of curiosity and wit. He’s one of the few characters in the movie to eventually see Merrick as human, even if he at first is only interested in him as an object of study. There’s a cathartic moment in the film where Treves becomes enraged after hearing a colleague compare Merrick to an animal in a zoo. It’s in that brief moment that Treves becomes relatable through his sheer disdain toward the other man.
Elephant Man is one of David Lynch’s more straightforward and accessible works in that it pretty much transpires in one singular reality (unlike his others which tend to induce a dream-state). Although that’s not to say it’s one of his less interesting movies: instead, it has its fair share of things to say. As a follow-up to 1977’s Eraserhead, this movie is certainly more mainstream but I believe Lynch is still extrapolating on the themes he will explore across his entire filmography (including the TV show Twin Peaks). There’s been a lot written about Eraserhead and his other films in terms of its relationship to sex and technology and that’s a pretty good place to start with Elephant Man as well. Merrick is certainly a product of sex between two people although we never hear about his father. His condition causes others to believe him to be an animal/human hybrid, a condition resulting from his mother cavorting with animals or being desecrated by them. The film even begins within Merrick’s own mind, a nightmare of what he’s been told of his conception. Lynch plays with the audience by making us believe we are about to encounter a monster. When we meet Merrick proper, first while wearing a sack over his face, there is something terrifyingly off about him. After his face is revealed, he has a pitiable look to him even if the other characters still treat him with shock and disdain. Even with the mask off, the public at large can’t see Merrick as anything but a sideshow attraction.
Made in 1980, Elephant Man is meant to look like it was shot in 1940. Lynch shot the whole film in black and white and used a variety of editing techniques to make the film appear especially older. The visual look of the film gives it a surrealist flavor much in common with early horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis. Although The Elephant Man would feel at home on a shelf with Universal horror pictures like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, it’s Victorian society and not Merrick who’s the monster. At several points in the film, Merrick is harassed and taken advantage of by people who want to profit off his appearance. A janitor at the hospital gets paid by his drunk friends to torment him. At one point, he is kidnapped by his former owner, who abuses him. Merrick is freed by the other carnival freaks, and as he makes his way back to the hospital he is jeered at by people in a train station prompting a freakout where he exclaims the iconic line; “I am not an animal!” It’s a heartbreaking scene that shows Merrick’s first sense of self-awareness. He stops believing that he is an animal as society deems him and exclaims forcefully that he deserves the same consideration as anyone else.
Like Eraserhead, Elephant Man centers on the harmful spectre of capitalism. In Eraserhead, the main character lives in a repugnant world and fantasizes a scenario is which is his own brain is manufactured into erasers. In Elephant Man, Merrick is the product: a man owned as a slave-for-profit, a medical conundrum, and eventually a prop of the bourgeoisie. Merrick initially isn’t useful to society until people find a way to profit off his appearance. He is taken in by medical science as a rarity but even medicine cannot cure him. Even the employees of the hospital treat him coldly at first. As Merrick becomes more and more accepted in British high society, he is treated better but doesn’t become happier. This is because he is never truly accepted by the rich, merely as a unique celebrity among them. Near the end of the film, Merrick attends a theatrical performance and is given a standing ovation at its end. Is their applause out of genuine affection or is the audience is merely clapping along as if it’s all part of the show? Merrick dies alone with only the vision of his mother beckoning him to the afterlife. She quotes Lord Tennyson: “Nothing will die.”