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Dead Ringers

Director – David Cronenberg – 1988 – Canada – Cert. 18 – 116m


Originally published in Samhain.

When David Cronenberg was in the UK to promote The Fly late in 1986, he talked about a project called Twins which concerned two identical twins who fall in love with the same woman. At the time, no-one thought he was serious.

Two years later, the film has appeared (under the appalling title Dead Ringers, since there was another Twins in production elsewhere). Cronenberg denies that the new film is science fiction or horror, or even fantasy. Yet (if one wants to play the auteur game) parallels can be drawn with certain of his earlier films.

Dead Ringers bears a great resemblance not so much to the commercial Cronenberg schlock oeuvre as to the art films of the late sixties from which he has in recent years dissociated himself on the grounds that they were not real movie movies; however, both Stereo (1969) and Crimes Of The Future (1970) were shot on University Campuses with bleak, modernist architecture – and the same setting forms the backdrop to several Cronenberg features, most notably Scanners. Such architecture is more prominent in Dead Ringers than in any previous Cronenberg commercial feature.

Interestingly, it is his first commercial feature since Rabid not to benefit from Mark Irwin’s startling cinematography. However, Director of Photography Peter Suschitzky copes more than adequately, giving a coldly clinical feel to the overall proceedings, once again recalling those (considerably less well-crafted) early art films.

Also, for all he may deny, Dead Ringers is essentially, on one level at least, another Cronenberg Mad Scientist Movie (and what better choice of mad scientist for the ‘King of Venereal Horror’ than a gynaecologist (or two)? Especially since the contrasting personalities of the Mantle twins allow both Cronenberg and Jeremy Irons (who plays both twins) to explore the difference between the ladykilling Elliot and the shy Beverly; between the outgoing salesman and quietly dedicated scientist; between the ‘son’ twin and ‘mother’ twin; between Seth Brundle and Brundlefly.

Indeed, the film’s final image reworks one of the major religious tableaux from Western art, the pietà (the Virgin Mary holding the body of the dead, crucified Christ). Irons’ dual performances are remarkable throughout (as are the numerous devices of trick photography used to ‘twin’ him), and should do wonders for his career.

David Cronenberg’s mad scientists tend to be the perpetrators of horror rather than its victims (with the exception of Brundle in The Fly, which Cronenberg did not wholly script himself). They cause someone else to be impregnated by their discoveries: Emil Hobbes’ parasite infecting a woman at the beginning of Shivers; Barry Convex and Spectacular Optical programming Max Renn in Videodrome; God dealing cruelly with Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone (an element that would seem to have appealed to the director from the King novel). The gynaecologists in Dead Ringers are, however, the film’s victims whilst appearing superficially to be its mad scientists.

Identical twins being a ‘natural’ phenomenon, one could in a sense argue that Dead Ringers is a rerun of The Dead Zone in terms of its conception of God as Mad Scientist. In The Dead Zone, when Sheriff Bannerman confronts Johnny with a Christian framework of right and wrong in an attempt to persuade him to use his psychic powers to find the Castle Rock serial killer, Johnny stops him in his tracks to retort angrily, “I’ll tell you about God. God’s been a real sport to me.”

If The Dead Zone was an emotional outburst against a cruel God who plays with His creatures like a scientist experimenting on animals, Dead Ringers is more atheistic in its outlook in that one or other of the Mantle twins seems constantly in control of their destiny; it is their lack of mutual synchronisation – sparked by Beverly’s falling in love with Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold in fine form) after Elliot has seduced her – which ultimately proves fatal.

The characters in Dead Ringers exclude God altogether – in this instance the factor which causes the twins’ eventual downfall is located within their mutual differences in psychological make-up as worked out in their sexual sharing or otherwise of women. As in The Dead Zone, one senses a world view along the lines of: if there is a God, his experiments on human beings can go tragically wrong. The atheistic slant given to this theme in the characterisations of Dead Ringers renders the final pietà all the more ironic.

Most of the famous Cronenbergian excess is found not so much in the stomach-wrenching special effects one has come to expect from his films (although there is one brief dream sequence along these lines, and more such material was apparently shot by the director but left out of the final film) but rather in two other areas. One of these is seen in the no-holds-barred sex scenes between Elliot and Claire (bondage with surgical instruments!) which contrast sharply with the gentler, less excessive love scenes between Beverly and Claire. The other details the twins’ descent into drug addiction, particularly in their apartment littered with pills, vomit, clothing and other household detritus at the film’s finale.

In short, Dead Ringers is intelligent, thought-provoking, and wholly worthy of Cronenberg. Whether or not it constitutes a genre film – whatever its creator may affirm or deny – is open to considerable debate.

Originally published in Samhain.


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