While I continue on the topic of freaks, it’s worthwhile mentioning The Elephant Man, David Lynch’s biopic of Joseph Merrick – referred to as John Merrick in the film – who was arguably the most famous freak in history. With massive deformities occurring nearly everywhere on his body, Merrick was doomed to live a very abnormal life, but Lynch brings some hope into the despair.
Unlike Freaks, where the presence of so-called ‘freaks’ are displayed unashamedly from the start, Lynch decides to take care when revealing the titular character, only showing his mask or his shadow at first. We wonder if he’s so disfigured in his appearance that it would be sickening to see him. However, when we do finally see him, there’s no dramatic music, just the man himself. It wasn’t that horrible after all, and we completely lose our prejudice that Merrick is anything other than a harmless person with a terrible deformity. It’s a great reveal.
The film seems Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) take Merrick (John Hurt) from the circus, where he is mistreated by his manager Bytes (Freddie Jones), so that he can be examined and lead a better life. His life on the whole gets better, but he is incessantly troubled by prejudice and people who simply do not understand him. Throughout, Merrick remains a meek and kind individual, a perfect gentleman, which is staggering when you factor in what he’s been through. At one point, Treves asks himself whether he is a good man, as he believes he has merely brought Merrick out of the streets to be paraded in front of scientists and the high-life, a higher form of circus perhaps. However, the question is quickly dismissed, ending an interesting line of thought in the film.
Satisfyingly, Lynch draws from his previous film, Eraserhead, for inspiration. The similarities cannot be denied: both are shot in black and white, although in the case of The Elephant Man I wonder if this was done to help the illusion of John Hurt’s extensive make-up. The industrial backdrop of Victorian-era Britain is undeniably similar to Eraserhead also. Occasionally, there is an intense ambient industrial backdrop too. However, to say the two films were alike would be utterly fallacious.
The Elephant Man was by all means a good film, although I felt that its messages of humanity seemed a bit obvious. The only interesting question was that posed in the middle of the film by Treves, but that didn’t seem to get much of a look-in. I find it interesting that the posters make it look like a horror film, as The Elephant Man is anything but. Definitely not as good as Eraserhead, but certainly a lot more accessible!