Nothing Will Die: David Lynch's The Elephant Man
David Lynch is a singular voice in cinema, and that’s an understatement. While his complicated thrillers and horror films have mixed responses (even among his fans), he conjures a robust atmosphere in his remarkable second feature film The Elephant Man, a biographical narrative chronicling the true story of John Merrick.
What is The Elephant Man? A biopic about a man stricken with elephantiasis, a faithfully rendered tale about the advancement in human understanding, medicine, and culture? Or is it a coal brushed period piece saturated in detail from London’s Victorian age? Despite the accolades as a prestige picture, critics and commentators alike refer to The Elephant Man as a full-blooded horror film. A genre that is very much rooted in Victorian literature is a culturally revered facet of film and literature (yes, most of the Hammer films should be taken seriously), while referring to The Elephant Man as a “horror” film might feel a bit counter intuitive seeing as the movie's central theme is humanizing a maligned victim of a (then) untreatable disease. However, the exclusivity of British horror (being directed by an American), welcoming The Elephant Man is an acknowledgment of greatness, a badge that the film and its crew can wear with pride.
Dedicating The Elephant Man to a particular genre is silly, but it’s entirely placeable in a distinctive vein in British horror cinema. The horror is similar to that of movies like Corridors of Blood, Eyes Without a Face, or Val Lewton’s Bedlam. The kind of clinical terror where the dated mechanics of medicine play a direct role in the actuality of the intended genre; what's scarier, John Merrick or Hopkins’ Dr. Frederick Treves performing surgery barehanded in plainclothes.
Filmed on location in London by the indelible DP/director Freddie Francis, an Oscar winner for his photography on Sons and Lovers and Glory (though his name conjures up images from Hammer/Amicus horror studios). For some bewildering reason, out of the film's eight Academy Award nominations, cinematography was not one of them. Beautifully grim, the photography communicates more than proto-steampunk images of saturated Victorian London, but an atavistic expressionism transcending time and space.
Upon revisiting The Elephant Man, I realized that this film is crafted in a way that makes it impervious to aging, timeless, in the literal, unromanticized definition. Francis’ befitting coarse film stock is deliriously seductive in capturing the soot covered London streets, atmosphere alone dictate a case for this film to fall under the horror moniker. Lynch’s directorial indulgences exceed the traditions of a biographical (as prefaced, he can’t help himself) account; his surrealist imagery is comparatively restrained (than his subsequent work) to a few scenes that effectively punctuate the outer worldly presence of the protagonists and the tenor of the stranger than fiction story. Francis and Lynch have created one of the few if the only movie of it’s kind, a film that cannot age.
Rooted in the infallible filmic language of sumptuous black and white, with modernist expressionism The Elephant Man can simultaneously feel classically cinematic as well as brandish its modernist flare; The Elephant Man looks as good as did upon its initial release, and I’m resolute in that it will remain as potent for years to come.