The Elephant Man, Thoroughly Resolved

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.

Update 4/16/17 - 9/14/21: I originally ended this post by writing, "it wouldn't surprise me to see it get announced any day now with a fresh 4k scan," and three years later, it happened. And not just a 4k scan on a 1080p blu (though we've gotten that, too), but a proper 4k Ultra HD release.
The Elephant Man starts out with one surreal, abstract sequence, with literal elephants and super-imposed imagery.  After that, it becomes a fairly traditional, but excellent, bio-pic.  He went to London and worked with Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Mrs. Brooks a.k.a. Anne Bancroft, And the Ship Sails On's Freddie Jones and of course 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: in some ways, 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 in 2020, SC made up for that mistake by restoring the film in 4k and issuing it in a lavish 3-disc BD/ UHD set.
1) 2001 Paramount DVD; 2) 2008 Optimum DVD; 3) 2011 Studio Canal BD;
4) 2020 Studio Canal BD; 5) 2020 Studio Canal UHD.


Like I said, even the initial DVD was pretty great.  So until you get up close, these screenshots look pretty similar, at least the first few.  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 below, 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.
1) 2001 Paramount DVD; 2) 2008 Optimum DVD; 3) 2011 Studio Canal BD;
4) 2020 Studio Canal BD; 5) 2020 Studio Canal UHD.
And they only become more life-like when they hit the final two, where it becomes less about focus and more about depth.  The lights now longer look washed out, and even these small, background characters appear more photo realistic.  One could easily wonder if HDR means all that much when the film is entirely in grayscale, and hey, maybe a fresh scan could've yielded similar results with or without it.  But there's no denying that these results handily trump the old blu.  The range of shades puts even the new 1080p blu way ahead of everything that came before it, and then the resolution of the UHD really manages the grain to look just like the original film, and even manages to pull out a few subtle details that were lightly crushed out of the lower discs' shadows.  Oh, and it should also be noted that while the framing is still 2.35:1, it pulls out to reveal more along the edges, and is also panned slightly to the left.

Like all the Studio Canal blus, the HK disc only gives us 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.  But both the old DVDs featured the original stereo mix, so it's nice to see it back on the new 2020 release, in lossless DTS-HD, along with French and German dubs, plus English, French and German subtitles.
So why was the Hong Kong blu a mistake?  I'm not that mad at the 5.1.  And 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.

Even the old DVDs managed to provide a nice selection of extras.  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 effects of the elephant man make-up, 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 just focused on his paintings at an exhibit they happened to meet him at).  And the new SC has all of that, plus even more.  They reach back and secure all of the old Paramount stuff except for the narrated photo gallery, and secure us two new features.  One is a surprisingly compelling interview with the set photographer.  He might be a little low on the totem pole, but he's an interesting guy and has some good stories.  The other is a festival Q&A with the producer, which is good on its own terms, but he doesn't say anything that we haven't already heard on the other extras.  They also add a brief, un-narrated stills gallery.  The first pressing included a 36-page booklet and 5 art cards, and there's an alternate steelbook edition that drops the BD (but keeps the bonus disc).
So if you're looking for a fun time, The Elephant Man may not be your bag.  But if you just like moving, high quality films, this is definitely one.  And having just gone through the 4k experience, I have to Lynch's distinctive use of sound and imagery casts itself you in a richer, deeper way, making it feel more as one with the rest of his body of work.  SC's new release is unquestionably the way to go, with greatly restored picture, the original mix back and lossless, and the largest collection of extras yet.  If you've been meaning to revisit The Elephant Man, now's the time.  And you might want to hang onto your old Paramount DVDs as an extra little bonus for that brief talk with Tucker, but if it's not already on your shelf, it's nothing to worry about missing out on.  This set is all you could ask for.

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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