Monday, 18 October 2010

The Elephant Man (1980)

Image copyright Brooksfilms
Unlike the other films in the "shapeshifters" series, this film is based upon a real story, and is in many ways more of a biopic than a horror film.  However, it does use many of the conventions of that genre, although to a considerably different effect.  For example, it uses the traditional technique of not directly showing the "monster", rather only suggesting at its appearance through things such as its shadow, or the seemingly obligatory screaming young woman when confronted by it.
The most obvious stylistic feature of this film however is the fact that it is filmed in black and white, which helps to evoke the setting of victorian london, with its gloom and smog, its downtrodden masses and refined society.  Perhaps in an attempt to recall the black and white films it is trying to echo, each scene ends with the screen fading to black, creating an effect akin to watching a play that has been filmed, rather than the (relatively) modern creation it is.  The overall effect is to produce a film that the New York Times film reviewer Vincent Canby described as "...a handsome, eerie, disturbing movie."
Image copyright Brooksfilms
This film does not rely upon special effects, apart from the obvious necessity of the makeup worn by John Hurt as the eponymous character.  Instead, the film is carried by the masterful performances given by Anthony Hopkins as the doctor (Frederick Treves) torn between his desire to help his patient John Merrick "the elephant man" and his fear that he has merely changed the social standing of the people who come to stare at John, and John Hurt as the eponymous "freak" who despite his misfortune does not rage against the cruelties of the world, but rather endures it stoically.
The critical reaction to the film was not very favourable, with Rodger Ebert asserting that "The film's philosophy is this shallow: (1)Wow, the Elephant Man sure looked hideous, and (2)gosh, isn't it wonderful how he kept on in spite of everything?".  There may be some basis for the latter criticism, since John Merrick was in no way responsible for his condition, and had little choice but to endure his fate.  
In my opinion however, the film does an excellent job of portraying the struggles that both John Merrick and Dr Treves go through, the former struggling to get people to see past his appearance to the man inside (indeed, the most memorable scene in the film involves him shouting to a crowd that "I am not an animal.... I... am... a... MAN!"), while the latter wrestles with the fear that the real reason he has taken care of John Merrick is to advance his own career.
Overall, I think that this film is best summed up by the BBC film reviewer Almar Haflidason when he says "It would take a heart of stone not be moved by "The Elephant Man"

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