A thorough examination of the infirmities that afflict "The Elephant Man," opening today at four area theaters, should begin with this question: Why is the unveiling of John Hurt in the title role treated as a prolonged tease?

There's no dramatic justification for the concealment, and the successful stage play that preceded this movie must have familiarized a large public with the story.

The so-called Elephant Man was a young Englishman named Joseph Merrick who suffered grotesque deformities from an incurable bone and nerve tissue disease now known as neurofibromatosis. While appearing at a storefront freak show across from the London Hospital in 1884, Merrick came to the attention of Dr. Frederick Treves, a prominent surgeon and lecturer on anatomy.

With the permission of the subject and his manager, a showman named Tom Norman, Treves arranged to examine Merrick at the hospital and displayed him at a pathology lecture.

Merrick returned to his pathetic branch of show business and Treves to his practice. Their paths recrossed by accident two years later. Merrick, abandoned and robbed on the Continent, made his way back to London -- an odyssey that must have been unimaginably frightening and mortifying. He took refuge in a waiting room at Victoria Station. Coming to his assistance, the police found Treves' card in one of his pockets.

Merrick was granted a sanctuary at London Hospital -- where he received visits and gifts from a parade of fashionable benefactors. He died in his sleep in 1890 at the age of 30.

Although the movie disavows the play of the same title as a source, both versions take obtuse and maddening liberties with a uniquely stirring chronicle of suffering and consolation. Exploiting only the tritest possibilities, director David Lynch and his associates begin with evasive melodramatic manuevers and conclude with an excess of shameless sentimental fabrications. In addition, they betray an astonishing class bias; To judge from the inaccurate representations of the film, Merrick never knew a kind word or gesture before he was adopted by responsible professional men, glamorous celebrities and glittering aristocrats.

The expendable tease begins when Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Treves (his agitated performance suggests that the doctor may have studied under Rod Steiger) somehow manages to get a revealing look at the Elephant Man in a shadowy inner sanctum of the freak show. As Hopkins gazes into the gloom, a neat little stream of tears descends from a corner of his left eye. Moviegoers aren't trusted with the appalling reality of Merrick's condition; they're instructed in the reaction deemed appropriate for persons of sensibility.

Merrick arrives for his examination, and again we see only the doctor's exquisite shock. At the pathology lecture, Merrick achieves the status of a silhouette.The next bit of peekaboo is more suggestive: a reverse angle that exposes a fragment of his bulbous skull.

By the time Lynch favors us with a straightforward viewpoint, the whole charade has degenerated into an unseemly, hypocritical joke. On one hand, the filmmakers heap abuse on a character called Bytes, the proprietor of the freak show, for exploiting Merric brutally. On the other, they rely on meretricious devices to arouse our curiosity.

The historical Merrick was not brutalized by his British managers. In fact, Merrick initiated his own brief career as a freak in order to escape three desolate years in the poorhouse. Ironically, Merrick saved himself by degrading himself. A movie that kept faith with these complicating aspects of a true story would enhance our respect for a singularly courageous human being.

The horror we're overprepared for is finally revealed to be rather benign. John Hurt is encased in layers of foam laytex to approximate Merrick's enlarged head, demolished features and lumpy, pendulous folds of skin (the principal source of his sobriquet). Hurt's Merrick seems a bit of a pet, an impression reinforced by his resemblance to certain fondly recalled movie monsters -- the Creature from the Black Lagoon or the cantina patrons in "Star Wars." After the exposure, nothing much is left to sustain the movie except a floodtide of bathos.

A powerful period setting might have taken up the slack, but Lynch doesn't impose the past as vividly as the theme demands. Nor does he place us in a position to appreciate Merrick's fears and longings as if they were our own. Even the somber mood imposed by Freddie Francis' black-and-white photography turns stuffy and cloying once the monster face is out in the open and the plot bogs down in trumped-up cruelties and drawing room niceties.

Dramatic potential is lost by picking up Merrick's life at the moment he encountered Treves. Merrick considered three aspects of his life -- neglected by both play and film -- profoundly important: the devotion of his mother, who died when he was 10; the hostility of his stepmother; the spell in the poorhouse. The beastliness ascribed to Bytes, played by Freddie Jones, and an equally nasty night porter, played by Michael Elphick, grows out of screenwriting desperation. It's also meant to reflect unearned credit on the generosity of Merrick's upperclass patrons. Happily, this contrast is blown to smithereens by Anne Bancroft's outrageous performance as the theatrical star Madge Kendal, who becomes Merrick's gushiest sponsor. Letting out all the sanctimonious, patronizing stops, Bancroft makes the Jerry Lewis of Telethon Day look like a self-congratulatory piker.

Ultimately, the grotesque thing about the movie is not the appearance of Merrick but the tearjerking fraudulence of the filmmakers. They've taken an authentic inspirational horror story and transformed it into a stilted endorsement of the celebrated and socially secure. Nevertheless, this damp embroidered hankie of a picture may be salvaged by its subtext: It never puts us inside Merrick's frail, tortured body, but one is always aware that there was a real Merrick who endured frightful handicaps and humiliations with a gentle heroic tenacity.