The elephant man
David Cronenberg was an unknown filmmaker with only two experimental traits (stereo and future crimes) when he wrote and directed Shivers (1975), a groundbreaking thriller that kicked off not just Cronenberg's career but an entire Canadian horror film industry. Before Shivers (aka They Came From Within, The Parasite Murders, and many other titles), Canadian horror films were so rare that Cronenberg had to fly into an American makeup artist because he couldn't find anyone in Canada who could do this type of job ; However, after Shivers' commercial success, there was a boom in Canadian scare films (aided by the favorable tax protection laws of the era), which included films like Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and The Changeling. These and most of the other Canadian horror films of their day focused on externally motivated threats – killers, ghosts, zombies, etc. – but Cronenberg's innovation was to find the source of his horror in the human body. The horror story of slimy creatures that pass from person to person as some kind of extreme (and extremely disgusting) sexually transmitted disease sets themes and visual motifs that Cronenberg would develop with increasing sophistication in many of his following films: Rabid, The Brood, Videodrom and The Fly among others. It also includes images that anticipate some of the greatest horror films of the future, notably Alien and George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Although Cronenberg's later films are more sophisticated, Shivers has the kind of relentless primal force often found in the early works of great horror directors (Wes Craven's last house on the left is another example) before they become polite members of the film society . Shivers has been video-printed and out of print for years. It is now available as a superb Blu-ray special from Lionsgate as part of the Vestron Video deluxe press series of major cult films. There are several commentary tracks and interviews with Cronenberg and his staff that not only provide insight into how Shivers came about, but also provide a useful introduction to the history of the Canadian film industry in the 1970s.
Cronenberg's studio benefactor on The Fly, Mel Brooks, was behind another excellent film that is new to Blu-ray, David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980). Boasting the commercial success of comedies like High Anxiety and Silent Movie, Brooks saw a period in the 1980s when he spent his Hollywood capital sponsoring daring works by other directors that had compromised neither the director nor the material. The Elephant Man and Lynch came to Brooks through Jonathan Sanger, an AD who worked with Brooks and discovered the Elephant Man script when his children's babysitter asked him to read it (she was with one of the writers). Sanger loved the script by Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren and loved Lynch's Eraserhead (Lynch's only feature to date). He was surprised when Brooks got the same feeling and used his clout to fund the picture with Sanger production and Lynch directing. The result was a lyrical and disturbing classic, a true story that transcended the usual bio-pic clichés with a strong sense of spiritual wonder and painful loneliness, and was anchored by a stellar John Hurt performance that was as poignant as it was unsentimental. Amazingly, given Lynch's tendency toward experimental, abstract imagery, The Elephant Man was a box office hit and critical hit that tied Raging Bull for most of the Oscar nominations of his year. Sanger and Brooks' confidence in Lynch's ability to express universal emotions through his highly specific visual language was fully confirmed and rewarded. The Elephant Man's new Criterion Blu-ray is another must-have special edition from the company, featuring hours of interviews and documentaries that offer a thorough look at the film and how it was made. Even better than the inserts is the exquisite transmission, which accurately reproduces the widescreen black and white images by cameraman Freddie Francis in all their haunting beauty.
The elephant male marked Francis' return to cinematography after a 19-year hiatus. He had spent the years since the Sons and Lovers of 1961 making hammer horror films. The Elephant Man rejuvenated Francis' career as a cameraman and ushered in a new phase in his career where he would do some of his best work, including Glory, Scorsese's Cape Fear and two more films for Lynch (Dune and The) Straight Story ). One of the real gems among Francis & # 39; s later films is the 1988 drama Clara & # 39; s Heart, directed by old pro Robert Mulligan and now available in a glowing Blu-ray edition from Warner Archive. Francis would work with Mulligan again on the masterpiece The Man in the Moon in 1991, and like that film, Clara & # 39; s Heart is a potentially Mawkish melodrama saved by Mulligan's restraint, precision, and dedication. Based on a novel by Joseph Olshan, the film focuses on the relationship between a boy who lost his little sister (Neil Patrick Harris on his film debut, a year before Doogie Howser) and his family's Jamaican maid (Whoopi Goldberg) . The maid has suffered an almost indescribable loss of her own, and Mulligan and screenwriter Mark Medoff (who added a similarly delicate touch to both the game and film versions of Children of a Lesser God) describe the growing bond between these damaged but strong characters with great subtlety and insight. The material harbors all kinds of pitfalls, especially when the extreme nature of the maid's secret comes to light, but Mulligan's classic compositions and patterns avoid imposing emotional effects on the viewer. He prefers long shots and two shots to manipulative close-ups and forceful editing, and the low key approach is far more impactful than more obvious aesthetic choices could have. We feel allowed into the characters' lives instead of being pushed around in them, and the freedom Mulligan gives the audience to choose who to identify with and when it will bring lots of permanent rewards.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently streamed on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.