This is it. The one. The masterpiece. It was the very first David Cronenberg film that I actively sought out–and the entry in his canon that made me a DC junkie. Is it ironic that all three main characters either are or become junkies? Well, it’s fitting. Because after tasting “Dead Ringers” for the first time back in the fall of 1988, I haven’t been able to kick. The summer of 1986 brought Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly”, and I ended up visiting that because it was a new version of one of my favorite 1950’s sci-fi films. People don’t remember it now, but some of the reviews for 1986’s “The Fly” were awful. I’m talking “worst film of the year” awful. “Disgusting” was something I read more than once, so I wasn’t all that keen on seeing it initially. Turns out, I was so dazzled by “The Fly”, that when Cronenberg’s follow-up came along two years later, I had to be there. I was reading before it opened about the director’s unique filming process, to make it appear as if Jeremy Irons and his “twin” were in the same frame, talking and interacting with each other via a process called motion-control photography. And Irons would not be playing the Mantle twins in the broad, unrealistic fashion of “one evil and one good”. No, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, brilliant twin gynecologists, would be subtly different. At times, the film-goer should have great difficulty in telling them apart. And certain female patients in the film would either think them interchangeable–or that only one existed. It ended up being the role of Irons career. Many were astonished when Jeremy wasn’t given an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. When he eventually won that Academy Award for Barbet Schroeder’s 1990 “Reversal of Fortune”, he thanked David Cronenberg in his Oscar acceptance speech. Cronenberg had nothing to do with “Reversal of Fortune”. But Irons knew how he had gotten to that podium. In his remarks about DC he stated that “some of you may understand why”. We did understand Jeremy. Your “Dead Ringers” performance helped you win that Oscar two years later–and it was a classy move to mention it. The trailer for “Dead Ringers” was classic Hollywood bait-and-switch. “The Fly” was a huge hit in 1986, grossing over 60 million dollars worldwide (back when 60 million meant something). So the “Dead Ringers” trailer not only used Howard Shore’s excellent score from “The Fly”, but the narration made every attempt to connect the 1986 film to “DR” in a way that made “Dead Ringers” appear to be a horror film. Oh, I guess it kind of was–but a psychological one, not unlike Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was 28 years earlier. But it didn’t translate into big dollars at the box office–“Dead Ringers” grossed only about 8 million. But Cronenberg’s reputation was greatly enhanced. “Dead Ringers” won the Genie Award for Best Canadian Film of 1988, and Irons received Best Actor from the New York and Chicago Film Critics. It also received mention in the prestigious “Sight & Sound” magazine Top Ten films of 1988 listing. Cronenberg was no longer just a genre filmmaker–he was being recognized as a serious auteur.
After an odd, disquieting, opening credit sequence featuring pictures of conjoined twins and bizarre mutations backed by a creepy and melancholy score from Cronenberg mainstay Howard Shore, we are introduced to twin brothers Elliot and Beverly Mantle as young boys. Not yet 10-years old, the children are carrying on a conversation about sex in a scientific, clinical way. After that, we observe them in university( played by the superb Mr. Irons from college age on), as they test a gynecological instrument they’ve designed, on a cadaver in a lab. A professor comments on their invention that it would “never work on a live patient”. Not only is that opinion inaccurate–the tool becomes the standard of the gynecologist industry while the Mantles are still undergraduates! Now we watch them working as gynecologists in a high-class office with a melange of rich, female patients. The Mantles have money and fame…and they also live together in a ritzy big city apartment. The Mantles apparently do everything together. And their fun includes sleeping with a variety of women, many of them their own patients. It seems the two handsome, successful men both have sex separately with scores of women–while tricking them to believe that they are only fooling around with one of the doctors. Elliot is the confident, brash seducer who stealthily passes them along to the quieter, shy Beverly–once Elliot is ready to move onto another conquest. The men are so identical in appearance that usually all Beverly has to do is say he’s Elliot to enact the deception. But then the aging, movie-star Claire Niveau (a perfect Genevieve Bujold) arrives at their office for help with her infertility. Elliot is starstruck, but the bookish, pensive Beverly doesn’t even know who she is. After diagnosing her as a rare case of have a “trifurcated cervix”, Elliot informs her that it will be impossible for her to bear children. Then he pounces on her when she is at her most vulnerable moment, and they begin a torrid affair. Elliot tells Beverly that she is fantastic in bed, and that he has to try her. Beverly does this while posing as Elliot–and he is quickly smitten with Claire. But Claire senses that something is not right, when she detects subtle differences in her encounters with Dr. Mantle. It’s not long before she figures out what they are doing and asks for a meeting, with the both of them together, where there is an angry scene played out in a restaurant. Claire walks out, to the smug relief of Elliot, who was bored with her anyway. But Beverly is in tears–he has fallen in love with Ms. Niveau. Beverly seeks her out for reconciliation and they continue their relationship. However, Claire is an addict for various prescription drugs–and before long she has Beverly hooked too. And when Claire ventures off to work on a film, Beverly begins drinking heavily, falling into depression and having paranoid delusions. The Mantles’ practice begins to suffer as Beverly becomes increasingly erratic. So, Elliot sets out to synchronize with his sibling, to bring their brotherly relationship back to an even keel.
To say that “Dead Ringers” is disturbing is a vast understatement. Of course, “body-horror” is on full display here, through dream sequences alluding to the Mantles being conjoined twins and an operating theater episode as Beverly’s delusions and exhaustion increase. Beverly begins to view certain women as mutants (due to his “trifurcate” diagnosis of Claire), and has medieval-looking instruments designed by a metal artist (cameo from “Scanners” star Stephen Lack as Anders Wolleck!) to treat them. But Irons performance as the Mantle twins is so expertly crafted and intricately nuanced, that you feel sympathy for both, despite their perversions. And their eventual descent into drug addiction is a shockingly realistic vision of hell. “Dead Ringers” employs a marvelous screenplay co-written by Cronenberg and Norman Snider (the “S” team expands!) that is based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, as well as a loose interpretation of the case of doctors Stewart and Cyril Marcus (Google it!). DC reached full maturity as an artist with this film (he was 45 upon its release), and it was the reputation earned from “Dead Ringers” that started the ball rolling of the top performers in the world wanting to work with him (he nearly lassoed a project with Tom Cruise in the last decade, but David refused to relinquish creative control). And the wondrous “S” team is all here! Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky creates a visual mood in hues of red and blue. Production Designer Carol Spier outdoes herself–especially in that drug den Mantle refuge. Sister Denise (Cronenberg) gussies up Irons in debonair style early on, and dishevels him deftly when the brothers begin their fall. Ronald Sanders’ editing keeps the proceedings tight and cohesive. And, as cited, there is the typically haunting Howard Shore score. I read, many years ago, certain critics (Roger Ebert among them) describing what Cronenberg created in “Dead Ringers” as too clinical and cold. I wonder if in retrospect they’ve come to the realization that it was the “only way to fly” with this enterprise. This film (I’ve easily watched it a dozen times), and later the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley, were the primary sources of my eventual Cronenberg obsession. This chronicle, through which I hope I am managing to showcase even a portion of his genius, while maybe even helping to usher in some new devotees, is a labor-of-love that was sparked nearly a quarter of a century ago. I find “Dead Ringers” to be a work of absolute genius. It could give you “shivers” (inside joke alert!), but it could also possibly turn you into a “rabid” (again!) fan like me.