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Dead Ringers

August 1, 2017

dead ringers surgery red

Twins. Red surgical capes. Fiendish homemade medical implements. This is a brief look at the David Cronenberg classic, ‘Dead Ringers.’

dead ringers poster

In 1988, David Cronenberg, one of the most accomplished purveyors of horror and shock cinema at the time, unleashed a beast of a different kind. The film is Dead Ringers. It is a chilling, fictionalized account of the story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twin gynecologists who died together under mysterious circumstances in 1975. Ringers is based on the lives of the Marcus twins as well as the novel Twinsby Bari Wood.

In Cronenberg’s film, the identical twin doctors are Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), and their unique brotherly connection causes them to share their personal and professional lives in more ways than one. Practically indistinguishable from one-another, they even trade roles without bothering to make others aware of their substitution.

dead ringers jeremy irons

In the movie, the brothers rise to fame in medical school by inventing a new piece of industry-standard equipment. They go on to run their joint practice, while spending much of their seemingly hermetic existence together. Their off-putting closeness is the key takeaway from Ringers. Perfectly identical, yet drastically different in personality, their bond goes deeper than just their shared occupation and apartment. They also seem inextricably linked in their feelings, dreams, and relationships. The inherent creepiness is balanced by a genuine tenderness; as is often the case in Cronenberg’s movies, it tends to defy easy categorization. Rightfully so, the twins are always the spectacle, never yielding the spotlight, even to the story’s more traditionally “Cronenbergian” aspects.

Dead Ringers is a masterpiece of tone. Cronenberg manages the high-wire act of grounding a set of outré elements without the whole thing becoming untenable. Maintaining a fairly close adherence to the real-life case (with a few flourishes, of course), Ringers begins to feel like a traditional biopic, albeit it one with a subdermal infusion of gothic horror. Ringers blurs the line between biography and surreal tragedy in a way that presages what Cronenberg would do with his next film: 1991’s Naked Lunch, itself an intertextual amalgamation of William S. Burroughs’ own life and characters.

Ringers is all the more impressive considering how it delivers a drastically different experience compared to Cronenberg’s more sensational fan favorites like Videodrome and The Fly. It may cede top-of-mind to his scarier science-fiction spectacles, but with a touch of gross body-horror and a sense of tragedy, Ringers remains quintessential Cronenberg though-and-through.

Exploring the emotional differences between the brothers, despite their absolute existential connection, makes for an engrossing character drama. The Mantles’ unique circumstance places them in their own unique subculture. They exist together, and well apart from practically everyone else. This conundrum makes up for the lack of more overt horror tropes, and Cronenberg’s laser-focus on his central characters manages to spin one of his tamer affairs into one of his most unforgettable.

dead ringers david cronenberg

In his skillful portrayal of the Mantle brothers, Jeremy Irons gives perhaps the greatest dual performance of all time (some of my other favorites are Peter Sellers’ triple-dip in Dr. Strangelove… and Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. in case you were wondering). What makes Irons’ work especially impressive is that Ringers occasionally plays its cards close to the vest regarding which twin is on screen when they are not in the same room, and yet there is always just enough distinctiveness in Irons’ performance that viewers should have some clue as to which brother they are seeing at all times. With the unshowy combination of Irons’ performance and some pretty seamless special effects, it’s not the least bit difficult to completely buy both performances.

It’s precisely this unshowy-ness, permeating the entire production, that makes it all work so well. Dead Ringers represents Cronenberg at his most restrained, while managing to still be fully himself. Perhaps the very definition of “operating at the height of one’s powers.” While the great Canadian filmmaker had already left his indelible mark on horror and gross-out cinema, Ringers was the turning point that demonstrated that he was fully capable of working from the outside in rather that from the inside out.

For more on David Cronenberg’s filmography, check out these posts regarding The FlyScanners and Stereo.

What are your favorite David Cronenberg movies? I’d like to know.

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From → Film Reviews

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