Dead Ringers (1988)
By: Mr Intolerance on January 21, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Umbrella Entertainment (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 1.85:1 (Non-anamorphic). English DD 2.0. 110 minutes
The Movie
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi von Palleske
Writer: David Cronenberg, Norman Snider
Country: Canada
Jeremy Irons is one of the stars of this film. The camerawork is the other. The way director Cronenberg keeps the camera moving while Irons interacts with himself as his own identical twin brother would have been a dismal failure in lesser hands. In this instance – trust me: it's not.

Canadian auteur David Cronenberg directs Irons in a tour de force performance as both Elliot and Beverly Mantle (again with the symbolic names raising their head in a Cronenberg film: to assume a mantle is to assume an identity, a role, and identity is a theme central to Dead Ringers), identical twin gynaecologists. Sounds forced? Unlikely? Far-fetched? Well it's actually based on a real story, albeit a bit loosely (for the kind of fictionalised dirt on the true tale, get your mitts on Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland) – identical twin gynaecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus, found dead from barbiturate withdrawal in their apartment in 1975, somewhat decayed apparently into the deal.

The opening credits show a range of nasty-looking (although no doubt quite normal) medical implements and old fashioned diagrams of dissections, presented in black and white on a rich blood red background, juxtaposed with a lush Howard Shore score (a regular Cronenberg collaborator for some time now) – it's telling us from the get-go through the selection of images, that this one's out there to confront and provoke – it doesn't lie to you.

The twins, obsessed with medical science from youth, are brilliant gynaecological success stories, an inseparable, practically symbiotic pair – the Batman and Robin of the gynaecological world – that's not meant to be a joke. Elliot is the dominant partner, Beverly (and I mean, who would name their son "Beverly"?) is the submissive, almost a sidekick in their relationship, where he lives in Elliot's shadow. But instead of the usual Hollywood good-twin/bad-twin dichotomy, they're both morally bankrupt. Elliot seduces the patients, but they're passed on to Beverly when he tires of them. The patients themselves are none the wiser until Claire Niveaux (Genevieve Bujold), an actress with fertility problems and a useless, barren three-chambered womb comes into their lives.

The general social awkwardness, and inability to discuss matters anatomical in a mature, adult fashion is satirised with Cronenberg's usual black humour (Claire to Elliot over dinner with her agent: "Tell me about my uterus." Elliot quite sanguinely responds with a question about her periods – it's all a bit much for the agent, who leaves, obviously disgusted, or at the very least uncomfortable in the extreme) – that awkwardness probably explains why the film took seven years to be realised, and went through the hands of many directors before Cronenberg took the helm; while gynaecology is not traditional fare for film (even psychological horror), he deals with it with aplomb, not being a director who has ever flinched from the uncomfortable.

I mentioned identity before as a key theme: Elliot and Beverly are not two separate beings, they are two halves of the same whole, often interchanging their roles when dealing with outsiders (they are a unified front), but alone together (an interesting notion in and of itself), they assume traditional gender roles – Elliot as the masculine, Beverly (the name gives it away, really) the feminine. Referring to each other in private as Bev and Ellie, thus reverting both characters to the feminine, only adds another layer of complexity. This isn't husband and wife – it is very much the split between the two opposing aspects of the psyche. Once you get your head around the power-struggle (who runs the show? The dominant or the submissive? Think about it for a while) and the almost schizophrenic games they play with each other, and others, you know that this is going to end badly.

The notion of isolation is also approached strongly. From the way the camera is used – we see everybody else is outside their bond, and many scenes are our two protagonists, the outside world shut out; public and private personae put up barriers – we can't know other people. It's a grand moment of irony when Elliot states to Beverly about Claire: "She's an actress, Bev, a fling. Plays games all the time. You never know who she really is." So, Cronenberg as existentialist? Definitely, and as much as Camus and Sartre before him. Much of the action sees the twins separated from the rest of the world, by occupation (let's face it: gynaecology is hardly a spectator sport – it has to be practised in seclusion), by financial means (their apartment, though icy and by no means a home, is palatial – although as the film progresses, and their relationship changes, so does their environment – both become increasingly claustrophobic, moving into smaller and smaller places, driving the twins closer and closer together), and by birth (two beings as one, as common conceptions and stereotypes would have us believe about twins).

And then of course, there's the sex. It's a Cronenberg film after all, sexuality is a given topic. And it's a sophisticated, multileveled examination of what society considers aberrant, about sexual morality, fidelity, jealousy – all dealt with by Cronenberg with his usual style and panache – while his films are representing a fiercely subjective vision, there's little judgement of right and wrong when exploring "deviant" sexuality in his films, despite it often leading to obsession and sometimes destruction. The final scene in Crash, for example, is both romantic and pitiable – a positive moment in a relationship that lacks positivity, but can only be achieved in extremis.

When Claire dumps Beverly, things turn very bad indeed – Beverly starts with a truly heroic intake of booze and pills, and his isolation from (at various points) Claire (filming out of state) and Elliot (who's been made an associate professor and has to leave his baby brother alone), and this over-indulgence, bordering on a conscious desire to commit chemical suicide take a dreadful toll.

The Cronenberg staple of the distrust of medical science is writ large in this film – as in The Brood, it's incapable of healing – an invasive force that alters and destroys: the sleazy amoral gynaecologists, the casual use of drugs as therapy (a stop gap that treats the symptoms, not the cause), the truly grotesque gynaecological implements Beverly designs which look more like they were commissioned by the Inquisition – effectively torture tools to help new life be born – and then there's the menacing red gowns and masks they wear: looking equal parts science and religion. This is a point I feel Cronenberg is trying to raise: that medical science has been raised in our society to the point of being a religion: science deified, yet not providing the comfort spirituality is meant to. Ultimately, it's a merciless god – a divisive, wretched force: cold, corrupt and soulless.

Irons is brilliant – a once in a lifetime performance – by turns icy, sleazy, threatening, charming and sympathetic. Regardless of whether he's playing Elliot or Beverly, our reaction to both characters shifts constantly, depending on situation. As in all of Cronenberg's films there's no absolute of good and evil, just shades of grey moral territory, left up to the audience to judge. That's one of the reasons why I love Cronenberg's films – there's a radical, incisive intellect at work, not only an individual, but a cliché-free zone.

There's an absence of the gore and even the physical violence for which Cronenberg was initially known (say, The Brood, Videodrome, Scanners, The Fly). Like The Dead Zone, the horror here is a horror of the mind, and that's much more frightening in its verite. Watching Beverly's gradual disintegration both physically and mentally is grim stuff. And given Irons' talent as an actor, it's credible, and in my mind the only performance that touches it is Isabel Adjani's miscarriage in the subway in Possession – and even then, that was scary for how bravura the performance, Irons is understated and pathetic. Even so, it's a one-way downward spiral into hell, cold and bleak.
Umbrella presents Dead Ringers in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, without the benefit of 16:9 enhancement. The picture quality is pretty good; good, without being great.
The 2.0 audio track is certainly adequate to the task – I mean, this is no Michael Bay action-soundfest. A bit on the quiet side would be my only gripe. I had to really crank the volume to catch all the dialogue; when I put Malabimba: The Malicious Whore on afterwards, it was deafening.
Extra Features
Unusually for Umbrella: bugger all. Just some trailers for, oddly enough considering this is a horror film and Umbrella usually put similarly-themed trailers on their discs, My Beautiful Laundrette and Cinema Paradiso – go figure. Considering what's on the now out of print Criterion release – we got fleeced. Again.
The Verdict
Harsh, sad, haunting and above all original, Dead Ringers may not grab the attention of the average horror fan that some of Cronenberg's more sensational films did, but it definitely deserves it. This film will take you into some pretty dark places, purely Jeremy Irons' amazing and totally credible performance as well as the sheer power of Cronenberg's directorial smarts. A quiet, deliberately-paced film with some genuinely unsettling moments; if you consider yourself a fan of real horror – especially of the psychological kind – you need to see this film. I only knocked off a point for the lousy job Umbrella did with the release.
Movie Score
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