Review: Dead Ringers (1988)

Director: David Cronenberg


The finest horror directors know that the way to disturb and affect an audience is to take the everyday and the reliable and mutate them into something quite different. David Cronenberg is one such director, and Dead Ringers mutates notions of medical professionalism, bodily perfection and sibling rivalry into something wondrous to behold; a disturbing but touching tragedy of quasi-Shakesperian proportions.

Jeremy Irons has had many roles in bigger films, but few of his films are as good as Dead Ringers and few of his performances are as magnificent as the one(s) he gives here. In the dual role of twin gynaecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, there is a broad spectrum of characteristics, emotions and bizarre qualities on display, the ideal for any serious actor. Though two distinct bodies, these two are inseparable. They share ideas, tastes and desires, both material and erotic. Smooth Elliot is the seducer and, through a duplicitous switcheroo, allows the shy Beverly to get some of the action. It is this relationship, this slimy symbiosis, that allows them to function. When a patient, TV actress Claire (a stark and distant Geneviève Bujold), arrives with three cervixes and a desire for children, the twins’ reactions differ for once. Elliot want his way with her, but Beverly finds himself falling for her, threatening the twins’ very reality. Despite the creepiness of this relationship (not helped by Irons’ dulcet tones), this is Cronenberg at his most restrained, at least visually. There’s no gooey mutations or morphings (one nightmare aside), just the glances and exasperations of the twins and their bodily fascinations. In one scene, Beverly makes love to Claire tenderly, yet she’s tied to the bed with surgical tubing. Elliot’s influence is ever present and visible, and vice versa.

Irons is mesmerising, and he must be no less considering he’s in practically every scene of the film. He switches between the slick Elly and the retiring Bev with immense ease. In some scenes, it’s hard to tell them apart, just as the story demands. Even at the emotional heights of this crisis, the two seem interchangeable. Cronenberg and Norman Snider’s script (adapted from a book by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland) never lapses either into farce or into complete body horror. This is first and foremost a tragedy. Bev and Elly depend on one another to an extent beyond fraternal love. Whether it’s a crippling lack of social definition beyond each other, or a genuinely psychotic fixation is left to the audiences’ minds. At one point, they tell each other the story of the original ‘Siamese twins’, Chang and Eng. Like those two, the separation of Bev from Elly could prove fatal.

Cronenberg shoots proceedings in darkened labs and sterile Toronto apartment blocks; considering the coldness of these settings, it makes the unfolding sadness all the more poignant. Moments of disturbing behaviour and the twins’ world collapsing around them are anchored by Irons’ performance and a beautifully understated score by Howard Shore. As the twins’ dependence on each other becomes more and more apparent, events build to a climax of unexpected empathy that you struggle to think of a moment in all of Cronenberg’s work to match it. Dead Ringers is undeniable Cronenbergian, but transcends the implications of that term to be a recognizably tragic masterpiece.


Review: Heathers (1989)

Director: Michael Lehmann


Think high school rich bitch, think Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, or Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, right? Wrong! As cruel as some of the characters in those films could be, even their most barbed comments never drew blood. Therein lies the difference between these films and Heathers, Michael Lehmann’s biting portrayal of high-school cliques and geeks. It’s got all the bitchiness, teenage alienation and other high-school clichés, but in their most extreme form and taken to their most extreme conclusions.

Watching Heathers, the greatest mystery has to be: what is a nice girl like Veronica (Winona Ryder) doing with the ‘Heathers’ clique. All named Heather, all sporting shoulder-padded jackets and taking snideness to new heights, they are just incomparably horrible, the kind of spawn you’d imagine Gordon Gekko producing. So why is Veronica wasting her time with them? She’s either conducting a social experiment or a sadist. Either way, her different nature is inescapable; she cares about issues. She feels empathy. She actually gets along with her parents! She also likes the attractive rebel (Christian Slater, stretching his Jack Nicholson shtick to breaking point). Indeed, when she starts dating him, she realizes the redundancy of hanging out with the ‘Heathers’, and Slater’s JD recommends a more drastic approach to influencing the social order at Westerburg High. Murder? How very!

A lesson in the dangers of superficiality is one thing (and a pretty clichéd thing at this stage) but seriously, how screwed up are these kids?! All the adults in this film are either blissfully oblivious, utterly out of touch with their children/students or are completely goofy. JD and his father (Kirk Scott) interact as if they have reversed the father-son roles and are each other. JD also seems to be in possession (or within easy reach) of handguns and explosives, and knows how best to kill the lead ‘Heather’, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker). As already highlighted, it’s all the school clichés at their most extreme: why humiliate the school princess when you can kill her? Why emasculate the jock when you can kill him and make it look like a suicide over his closet homosexuality? And so forth. Veronica seems to take it all in her stride, though her diary belies her doubts (“My teenage angst bullshit now has a body count.”). We’re with her every step of her confused way, and  Ryder makes for a very likable guide through this messed-up world.

That said, it’d take a Sarah Palin-sized prude to fail to see the humour in all of this. Exaggeration is the key; the trussed-up sexiness of the ‘Heathers’, the none-more-‘80s interiors and costumes, the insanity of it all. The world of Heathers deserves our scorn; it practically demands it! When a father proclaims his love for his deceased homosexual offspring at his funeral, you know that drama has left the building, taking all good sense with it. The wit is biting, the wounds are deep, and justice belongs to the downtrodden geek.

Review: The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Director: Steve Kloves


There is one scene that everyone remembers in The Fabulous Baker Boys. In it, Jeff Bridges is the smoothie tinkling the ivories while Michelle Pfeiffer is standing atop the piano in a red evening dress slit to the thigh, performing an incredibly sensual version of ‘Makin’ Whoopee’. She slinks about the grand piano lid whilst practically fellating the microphone she’s holding; Pfeiffer still looks fantastic, but this role has her at her most enticing, and it remains one of her best performances.

Does the rest of writer/director Steve Kloves’ film hold up? The story’s a little wobbly, if only because it’s been done before and since. Jack and Frank Baker (Jeff and Beau Bridges) are a cabaret act, but their act is dated and they look for a female vocal to spice it up. In slinks Susie Diamond (Pfeiffer), all pout and legs, to shake up their act. Unfortunately, Jack falls for her and the mingling of his personal and professional lives threatens the group. Big suprise(!) Still, for all the familiarity of Kloves’ plotting, The Fabulous Baker Boys remains an intensely likeable film. For starters, the three lead performances are all excellent. Pfeiffer plays Susie like she always maintaining a pretense, with only subtle hints at pain within. The Brothers Bridges have a nice dynamic, alternating between gentle ribbing and some genuine antagonism; I can’t help but feel that they brought quite a bit of their off-screen relationship to these roles. In any case, Jeff is as cool as ever and Beau makes for a believable ‘control-freak’ older brother.

The Fabulous Baker Boys boasts a classy, warm look that belies the slight cheesiness of the brothers’ cabaret act. Ranier Werner Fassbinder’s DP Michael Balhaus shoots the film with a slight warming glow; it looks comfortable and reassuring, drawing the viewer into its world. Once you’re there, Dave Grusin’s piano casts a wonderful spell to ensure that you end this film with a grin. It’s a friendly little flick that takes old rope and polishes it to a brilliant shine. It’s simply fabulous.

Review: Re-Animator (1985)

Director: Stuart Gordon


Of all the 1980s ultra-gory horrors, few are as giddily schlocky, shocking and bloody (i.e. none more ’80s) as Re-Animator. Out of a desire to make a modern Frankenstein tale, writer/director Stuart Gordon adapted H.P. Lovecraft’s tale of a mad scientist bringing dead tissue back to life with a self-developed green-glowing reagent. Given the resulting chaos, it’s clear that scientists (mad or otherwise) don’t watch enough horror movies.

The cult appeal of Re-Animator is due in no small part to its lead character, Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). He’s a strange little man; always well-dressed, confrontational with his superiors and secretive in his activities, he’s just arrived from Switzerland at Miskatonic University Hospital, under the watch of Dean Halsey (Roger Sampson) and the tutelage of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale). Combs’ reputation as an actor is built on this one character; given the kind of reprehensible things he does in the course of the film, his toned-down take on the character is a refreshing change from the kind of hamminess VIncent Price excelled at. Nervous tics and mania at a minimum, West relishes the (illicit) opportunity to experiment with the hospital’s supply of cadavers, with the assistance of his reluctant straightman housemate Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott). Another refreshment the film offers is a nice supply of characters to care about; Dan is weirded out by West at first, but grows to like him having seen the results of his experiments (a poor kitty being the unwilling first volunteer). Going deeper into West’s experiments will have unspeakable consequences for Dan, his fiancée (and the Dean’s daughter) Megan (Barbara Crampton), and Dr. Hill. Cue dismemberments.

A take on the myth of Frankenstein presents a valuable opportunity for a special effects crew, and the effects in Re-Animator are dazzling. Buckets of blood and old fashioned gore are coupled with animatronics and excellent make-up to make a horribly believeable array of patients/guinea-pigs/victims for West to work with. As various body parts are brought back to life, Gordon films proceedings with a dark sense of humour and an ability to shock (the infamous ‘head’ scene). With gallons of blood and a barbed sense of wit and reverence (the Psycho-like score, for example), Re-Animator’s tongue is buried deep in its reanimated cheek. It boasts plenty of the elements of a standard T&A bloodbath, but it also has far too many smarts and shocks to be ignored.