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.