Dead Ringers: David Cronenberg’s classic at 30

It's now 30 years old, but David Cronenberg's horror drama is still an underrated, undisputed classic...

On the 19th July 1975, twin brothers Stewart and Cyril Marcus were found dead in their New York apartment. Emaciated and surrounded by detritus, the twins were later discovered to have suffered from severe barbiturate withdrawal – a shocking and sad end for a pair of respected gynaecologists with a once thriving practice.

This strange story formed the loose basis for Dead Ringers, a film project director David Cronenberg had first begun to consider in 1981. Long fascinated by the topic of identical twins, a newspaper headline about the Marcus brothers (“Twin docs found dead in posh pad”), and later an Esquire article (also named Dead Ringers), prompted Cronenberg to explore the idea further.

Loosely based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, which in turn was inspired by the Marcus story, Dead Ringers came after the huge success of Cronenberg’s horror tragedy, The Fly (1986). Following that film’s body mutations and gallons of ooze with a comparatively restrained drama may have seemed like a strange career move to observers at the time, and Cronenberg had some difficulty convincing his financiers of the project’s worth; executives bemoaned the story’s usage of drugs and downbeat ending – and did the twins really have to be gynaecologists?

Determined to the last, Cronenberg fought to make the film, and even set up his own production company in order to keep the project alive as the De Laurentiis Group – Dead Ringers’ initial financial backers – began to circle the drain.

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Remarkably, Cronenberg managed to get the film into cinemas in 1988 with but one alteration – its original title, Twins, was switched to Dead Ringers in order to avoid confusion with a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy due out that same year.

“I’ve discovered why sex is. It’s because humans don’t live underwater”

Jeremy Irons plays the dual role of Elliot and Beverly Mantle, identical twins whose childhood fascination with human reproduction leads to a hugely successful medical career in adult life. Having invented a revolutionary gynaecological device – the Mantle Retractor – while still graduates at university, the twins use their renown to set up their own luxuriously-appointed private clinic. For years, the twins work harmoniously, with the outgoing and aggressive Elliott acting as the pair’s public face, while the more withdrawn, cerebral Beverly concentrates on scientific detail. But the arrival of actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) at the Mantle clinic soon upsets the twins’ delicate dynamic.

The predatory Elliot immediately makes a beeline for Claire, aiming to seduce her and cast her aside in his usual manner, while Beverly falls deeply in love with the troubled actress. Claire is, for a long time, entirely unaware that Elliot and Beverly are two separate people, and struggles to understand why the man she’s involved with is assertive and incredible in bed in some encounters, and tentative and reserved at others.

Eventually, Claire learns the truth, and chooses to reject Elliot and embark on a relationship with Beverly. With a wedge drawn between them, the twins descend into a spiral of paranoia, jealousy and drug addiction – a maelstrom from which they are too interdependent to escape.

“There’s nothing matter with the instrument, it’s the body”

Far from an about-face for Cronenberg, Dead Ringers was a logical progression from the themes he explored in The Fly – love triangles, obsession, jealousy, and ultimately death – and although Dead Ringers is largely free from the Chris Walas-designed body horror excesses of the previous film, it represents an even greater technical leap forward in terms of filmmaking.

Actors had played dual roles in movies before – see Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap (1961), or Bette Davis in Dead Ringer (1964) – but none had succeeded in merging two performances as seamlessly or as often as Cronenberg did in Dead Ringers. Motion-controlled cameras and specially-prepared sets played their part, but it was Jeremy Irons’ extraordinary performance that really sold the effect.

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With little more than a change in syntax or subtle shifts in body-language, Irons utterly immersed himself in the two characters – and remarkably, managed to play two recognisably individual characters in the same scene, and also get across the notion that Elliot and Beverly are, as the film’s tagline puts it, “Two bodies, one soul”, with each twin fulfilling the male and female halves of a single man’s psyche.

Having coaxed ambiguous, disturbing and soulful performances from Samantha Eggar (The Brood), James Woods (Videodrome), Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) and Jeff Goldblum (The Fly), Dead Ringers once again marked Cronenberg out as an actor’s director – and Irons’ portrayal of the Mantle twins is without doubt one of the highlights of his career to date.

Typically – and criminally – his astonishing performance was ignored by the Academy the following year, something Irons occasionally discussed in later interviews. “I thought, ‘If you can’t get [nominated]  for that, what can you get it for?’,” Irons said in a 2008 Guardian interview. “But I sort of knew why I wasn’t nominated – it wasn’t a particularly life-enhancing film.”

“Were you afraid I’d like him as much as I like you?”

Cronenberg was no stranger to downbeat endings, and almost all of his movies conclude with the lead character either dead or irrevocably changed – usually for the worse. But Dead Ringers, which concludes with the haunting image of Beverly and Elliot’s dead bodies twisted and apparently fused together with wax, is something else again: it’s nothing less than heartbreaking. In fact, Dead Ringers could be described as an intimate portrait of what a broken heart looks like.

A director with an uncanny ability to touch raw nerves in his audiences – typically thrilling and horrifying us with themes of degradation or bodily invasion – Dead Ringers sees Cronenberg target new pressure points, like a form of cinematic acupuncture. This simple story, about two people’s dependency on one another, and the way relationships leave us painfully exposed, has an impact which is devastating in its power. The director himself understood this; as he said in the book Cronenberg On Cronenberg:

“I’ve had a response to the movie that I’ve never gotten from any of the other films. I went to one of the first public screenings in Toronto and one guy, a doctor, said, ‘Can you tell me why I feel so fucking sad having seen this film?’ I said, ‘It’s a sad movie.’

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“Then I heard from someone else that a friend of his saw it and cried for three hours afterwards. So I thought, ‘That’s what it is. That’s what I wanted to get at.’ I can’t articulate it. It’s not really connected with gynaecology or twinness. It has to do with that element of being human. It has to do with this ineffable sadness that is an element of human existence.”

Dead Ringers is beautifully observed dramatically, and equally beautiful to look at. Taking place almost exclusively in coolly lit rooms, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s composition is precise and understated. When brief flashes of the old Cronenbergian appear, they sear through the grey palette – take, for example, the cannibalistic dream sequence (a second of horror was cut after a test screening), or the extraordinary red ‘cardinal’ medical gowns the twins wear during their toe-curling operation scenes.

Among a group of actors and filmmakers working at their creative peak, there was composer Howard Shore, whose murmuring, tragic music is among his finest work. Used sparingly through the film itself, his score sets a meditative, gently mournful tone during the opening title sequence – the perfect fit for Cronenberg’s tale.

“As soon as I heard the music he wrote for the movie, I knew he’d got it too,” Cronenberg later recalled, “and he couldn’t articulate it either. But the tone of it, like the tone of those dreams, is ineffable. You cannot speak it. Because of the stupidity of a bunch of legal and other things, that music isn’t available on disc or tape. That kills me, because it’s gorgeous, sensuous, sad. Really moving.”

“Separation can be a terrifying thing”

Inevitably, perhaps, Dead Ringers failed to find the same kind of appreciative audience that The Fly played to two years earlier. But time has been exceptionally kind to this pivotal film in Cronenberg’s career, and it’s now among his most admired – Korean director Park Chan-wook, for example, describes it as a favourite. Jeremy Irons counts it as his best work, and when he won his performance in Reversal Of Fortune finally earned him an Oscar for Best Actor in 1991, he thanked Cronenberg during his acceptance speech.

“Some of you may understand why,” he said, pointedly.

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From a curious newspaper story about identical medical professionals and their unfortunate end, Cronenberg managed to mine a story with more universal themes – a story full of tenderness and existential angst. There are sparkles of humour, too – Beverly’s drunken after-dinner speech, Bujold’s stunning, wounded performance during her first proper meeting with her twin lovers – and these serve to throw the inevitable end into stark relief.

By placing aside overt horror, Cronenberg forged a human drama of genuine depth – a film painful to watch, yet entirely mesmerising. It is, as the director himself once put it, “a distillation” of our existence; “an essence which is not the whole story, but is perhaps so potent, one drop could kill you.”