You've Got To Respect The Elephant Man (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

The Elephant Man is a rather unusual film for Lynch, in that it's not rather unusual.  Elephant Man's the film he made after spending years trying to find funding for his own, post-Eraserhead script and couldn't get it. So he decided to film somebody else's, more conventional script.  And fortunately for him, it turned out to be a huge success, nominated for like eight Academy Awards, and let him go back to making his own, distinct films.  Oh, and Dune.
The Elephant Man starts out with one surreal, abstract sequence, with literal elephants and super-imposed imagery.  After that, it becomes a very traditional, but excellent, bio-pic.  He went to London and worked with Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud.  It's beautifully shot by Tales From the Crypt's Freddie Francis and produced by Mel Brooks.  It's very stoic in one sense, but it has a real old Hollywood feel, too.  And not just because it's in black and white.  It's the austere performances, the dark locations, it's inevitable story.  It just feels timeless, important and flawless, almost the exact opposite of Lynch's scrappy, wild excursions of self expression.  It's definitely not for anyone looking for quick, brain candy entertainment; but it's so bleak and honest that it still packs the same punch it did back in 1980.
Paramount gave this film a pretty respectable DVD debut back in 2001, anamorphic widescreen with some nice special features.  Really nothing to complain about.  But when Optimum put it out in the UK in 2008 with all new extras, well, you couldn't call yourself a Lynch fan if you weren't at least tempted to double-dip.  Well, I did.  But surprisingly, we still haven't seen it hit HD here in the states.  But Studio Canal has taken up the reigns and released it on blu in pretty much every other corner of the world.  I wound up going with their Hong Kong disc, which was a mistake as you'll see later.  But their transfer's the same on all the discs, so let's have our comparison.
Paramount DVD first, Optimum DVD second; Studio Canal blu third.
Paramount DVD first, Optimum DVD second; Studio Canal blu third.
Like I said, the even the initial DVD was pretty great.  So until you get up close, all these screenshots look pretty similar.  They're all pretty much identically framed at 2.35:1 and finely detailed.  None of them are interlaced, the colors are truly black & white (none of that weird green and purple haze that infects a lot of cheaper b&w DVDs).  They all seem to be using the same source master, but when you look at the close-up comparison, you can see how the UK DVD does smarten up the image a bit more than the older Paramount disc, which is more compressed with splotchier dark edges.  And then the blu clarifies the finer points even more.  Panning from left to right, it's like the faces are coming into focus.

Like all the Studio Canal blus, we're only given the English in 5.1, which is less than ideal for purists (after all, there's no way the original audio was in 5.1 back in 1980); but it's a pretty straight-forward mix, so it's fine.  And it's a Dolby TrueHD track, so it's uncompressed, and the English and Chinese subtitles are optional/ removable.
So why was the Hong Kong blu a mistake?  It's Region A, so it's nothing to do with that.  The problem is in the special features.  It's barebones, while the SC discs in literally every other country - France, Japan, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Australia, Germany, The UK - have a nice special features package.  But not, for some reason, the HK disc.  So don't make my mistake.  If you're going to spring for this blu, pick literally any of the others.

But fortunately, thanks to my old DVDs, I have a nice selection of Elephant Man special features.  The Paramount DVD has a really good, half-hour 'making of' featurette that interviews Brooks, Hurt, and several other key players.  It's pretty straight-forward, but quite good.  Then there's a brief but fascinating look at the special effects of the elephant man himself, which was taken from an actual cast of the original, real elephant man from a British museum.  That's followed by a "narrated photo gallery," where effects artist Christoper Tucker gives us a deeper look at the film's effects work.  Also included is the trailer an a nice insert with some cool artwork.
The UK DVD doesn't have any of that stuff, but what it comes up with is just as good, if not better.  First, there's a very professional, informative featurette about the real historical figure this film biographies.  But even more importantly is a very comprehensive, sit-down interview with David Lynch, the key player missing from the Paramount doc.  It's a really great, informative interview that goes through the whole process.  Finally, they have another, quite good interview with John Hurt; but it is fairly redundant if you've seen the Paramount stuff.  Oh, and the trailer's on here, too.

Now, the Hong Kong blu doesn't have jack, not even the trailer.  And while I don't own any of the other Studio Canal blus, I can tell you what's on them because I research this stuff.  A little too late in my case, but I researched it.  😆  Anyway, they have all of the Optimum extras, plus two additional interviews with Lynch (one of which is quite short).  So if you get one of those, you can forget about the UK DVD.  But the US DVD is worth hanging onto regardless, because all of those features are exclusive [except for the notorious Lime Green box; see the comments!], and feature unique interviews.
So if you're looking for a fun time, The Elephant Man may not be your bag.  Even if you're normally a Lynch fan.  But if you just like high quality films, this is certainly one.  Personally, I'd recommend importing an SC blu and then picking up the Paramount DVD used on the cheap to round it out.  Or you could wait for a US blu.  It really feels like something Criterion should've resolved years ago, and it wouldn't surprise me to see it get announced any day now with a fresh 4k scan and an all new retrospective.  But for now, this is what we've got, and it's actually quite good.

3 comments:

  1. Any idea if the 2 DVD's of this included in the "lime green box" were any of these? If so, which? Great site, I read it frequently, even when I've never heard of whatever flick you're tackling. Great resource, it's appreciated.

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    1. Oh yes! I forgot all about the Lime Green box. Yes, the extras on there include all the extras from both DVDs, but not the later two Lynch interviews that Studio Canal added to their blus. Cheers!

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  2. Thanks! Good to know. It's a shame some of the stuff from that box exist s only on DVD in that prohibitively expensive set.

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