Producer Mel Brooks hired David Lynch – a connoisseur of the grotesque – to direct this touching story of a hideously deformed man in Victorian London.
This was the time of Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper murders and the flavour, fever, and ferment of those times are beautifully reflected in the sombre black-and-white cinematography, filmed on London’s cobbled back streets with a backdrop of industrial sounds (clocks, machinery, gas).
The film actually feels as if it were made a century ago.
The real John Merrick suffered from a then-unknown disorder at first believed to be elephantiasis but later thought to be more directly related to abnormal bone development.
A victim of ignorance and brutality, he was an object of ridicule as a carnival freak when the doctor Sir Frederick Treves moved him to London Hospital and spent four years “civilising” him.
When the governing committee of the hospital tried to turn him out as “incurable,” even Queen Victoria and Princess Alexandra of Wales intervened on his behalf.
Hurt is stunning as Merrick, suffering at the hands of his ‘owner’, Bytes (Freddie Jones), parading him in his freak show. These horrific scenes contrast with Merrick’s time with Anthony Hopkins’ doctor who embodies compassion and takes him under his wing.
Merrick is abducted from the safety of the hospital by Bytes, and whisked to the continent and put back on public display, but Merrick escapes and returns by ship to England.
Sadly, his disease turns out to be incurable, and after discovering he is dying, Merrick chooses to commit suicide and falls asleep soothed by dreams of his beloved mother.
The film (and the play) raised the moral question of whether Merrick was really helped by this humanising process or indeed was exploited on yet another higher level as a martyr of society.
Spooky, shocking, sad . . . and true.
Dr Frederick Treves