It is difficult to give an introduction to David Cronenberg. For over a third of his career, Cronenberg was the godfather of Body Horror, delving in grotesque mutations, infections, and mental deterioration with practical effects that look incredibly revolting today. There’s no doubt that’s he’s an outlier among his Horror Hall of Fame peers, and where many directors hit snags that some can never recover from, Cronenberg seemed to evolve. In that, he transitioned to other genres, spreading roots that would earn him a forever polarizing audience. He never stopped creating horror films though, they just became well hidden. Some of Cronenberg’s later films like Crash, Eastern Promises, and the underrated Cosmopolis feature brutal violence and mental breakdowns that would make any seasoned horror fan tug at their shirt collar. The man has never lost his touch during this four-decade long transition, and the film that marked the turning point in the Kafka-esque filmography would have to be 1988’s Dead Ringers.
Identical twins, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, played by Jeremy Irons, are gynecological prodigies operating a successful clinic where they often engage in affairs with their patients. I’m pretty sure there’s a golden rule about this sort of thing, but the two seem to revel in taking advantage of the fact that that nobody can tell them apart. Their practice receives a new patient, a successful, but promiscuous, actress named Claire Niveau, played by Geneviève Bujold, who is looking into her fertility issues. Beverly, the timid brother initially examines her, but unable to deliver the news, switches out with the more confident Elliot to inform her that her condition is beyond a safe procedure. Elliot wastes no time jumping at the opportunity to seduce Claire (who still thinks he’s Beverly), and passes her off to Beverly the next morning. Despite hesitation, Beverly starts to see Clair and begins to feel an emotional attachment to the actress. Clair catches on pretty quickly, after learning from an associate that the Mantles are identical twins, and decides to put an end to their perverse scheme. She confronts them both at a restaurant and breaks things off, but later reconciles with Beverly exclusively.
Beverly begins to partake in Claire's prescription drug use, which he abets through his medical connections. He has a nightmare where he imagines a tryst between him, Clair, and Elliot, with his brother conjoined to him by an umbilical cord-like tendril. He then struggles to sleep afterwards, and thus his already hypocritical professionalism begins to crumble. Equilibrium between the brothers also suffers as Beverly begins to crack. He publicly shames Elliot by drunkenly exposing some of their escapades at a board function. Claire later sets off to begin working on a new project, leaving Beverly paranoid and slipping further into addiction and depression. He begins having vivid delusions of “mutant women” and their anatomy, and commissions a metallurgical artist to build prototype instruments to operate on these women. Beverly brings the Lovecraftian prototypes to test during a surgery, much to the horror of his team. However, the drug-addled doctor collapses from withdrawal atop the patient, before the tools can be used.
On the production side, Dead Ringers marks a turning point for Cronenberg, who has had career-long recurring collaborators. During pre-production, Cronenberg’s go-to cinematographer, Mark Irwin, stepped down, so Peter Suschitzky was brought in. Following Dead Ringers, Suschitzky would shoot all of Cronenberg’s feature films. The first use of computer-controlled moving-matte photography, to accompany Iron’s dual role, could have had challenges in the future. But this was not the case. Some pretty impressive shots are achieved of the twins onscreen together, but they’re used sparingly, still opting for the old school tricks of body doubles and clever editing (courtesy of Ronald Sanders, Cronenberg’s editor since 1979). The film makes great use of tight framing and wide shots, making the characters feel small, almost insignificant among the many Toronto high rise buildings. The film is also eerily quiet, with the score provided by Howard Shore used moderately until the halfway point. The strong performances alone keep your attention. Finally, a special mention has to be given to costume designer and director’s sister, the late Denise Cronenberg, who added a unique detail. During the operating room scenes, Beverly and the surgery team are clad in blood red scrubs, psychologically creating a sense of dread.
On the casting side, Dead Ringers is pretty much Jeremy Irons’ show ‘till the end. A good portion of the film is just Irons acting against himself. He gets to shine playing two personas, deliberately similar, but with enough differences to be unique. It’s hard to tell them apart unless they are both in the same scene. These two characters have basically been disconnected from reality since childhood and only understand each other. We see that Elliot falls more on the sociopath spectrum, the one in control, where Beverly is at first codependent and complicit, before showing a much darker nature as his mind deteriorates. Geneviève Bujold is interesting as Clair, problematic and complex. She’s a character that is open and honest about her past, and writes off her current self-destructive habits.
Back to the film… with their careers suspended, Elliot takes it upon himself to help Beverly get clean. He secretly starts binging painkillers as a way to “synchronize” himself and his brother once again. Beverly goes to Clair upon her return, and after a certain amount of time, a more stable Beverly emerges. He returns to the clinic to find it in a state of college dorm disarray. Now the roles are reversed, with Beverly caring for Elliot. It doesn’t take long before Beverly is using once again, and tragedy ensues when Beverly disembowels Elliot with the prototype tools. The next morning Beverly leaves the building, but finds himself unable to cope with what he has done. He promptly returns to the scene, and presumably overdoses in his brother’s arms.
Dead Ringers marks a point of maturity for David Cronenberg, crafting this as a follow-up to his remake of The Fly when he could have easily cashed in on other mainstream horror projects. But he took a gamble and made a film about two flawed misogynistic characters who view those around them as utilitarian, and are only capable of loving each other. It has a very Bret Easton Ellis level of cynicism and bluntness, which is fitting, as Cronenberg was attached to the adaptation of American Psycho at some point during the 1990’s. Cronenberg has made a film about separation and departure, signaling a transition from the physical to the more psychological works he’d pursue through the latter half of his career, up until Maps to the Stars in 2014. Cronenberg has a lengthy and challenging body of work that many filmmakers cannot compare to. These films are as smart as they are visceral, but in their own way always terrifying.
As of late 2020, Amazon has started work on a Dead Ringers series that will star Rachel Weisz. No word on Cronenberg’s involvement but we’ll see in due time. Cronenberg is currently production of remake of his directorial debut, Crimes of the Future.
In memory of Denise Cronenberg: October 1938 – May 2020
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