NOTE: By popular demand, Dead Ringers has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made! Please read the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post; this initial review is left here for archival purposes.
DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg
FEATURING: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold
PLOT: A woman disturbs the delicate psychic balance between twin gynecologists.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: When the plot synopsis contains the words “twin gynecologists,” you know you’ll be traveling into territory off the beaten path. When it’s David Cronenberg directing a story about twin gynecologists, you can expect something even further out there. While Dead Ringers is a drama, it’s a drama for horror movie fans, and it’s offbeat and unnerving enough that it might in indeed rise to the level of “weird.”
COMMENTS: Twins can be mildly eerie. Male gynecologists are slightly creepy. Put twins and gynecologists together, though, and the ick factor increases exponentially; especially when the twin gynecologists’ dating practices are, to say the least, highly unethical. As shy Beverly and suave Elliot, the Mantle twins, Jeremy Irons gives a fascinating and multifaceted performance. By utilizing differing mannerisms and energy levels (Bev is jittery where Elliot is detached), Irons makes it so the viewer can immediately differentiate which twin is which about 80% of the time. That 20% uncertainty about who you are looking at on the screen adds an extra uneasy edge to a picture that’s already morally queasy. Bev and Elliot, you see, share their women—who are also their patients—and the ladies may be bedding Bev while believing they’re receiving Elliot. When Beverly, the more sensitive of the pair, becomes enamored with a French-Canadian actress/patient, he decides he wants to keep her for himself and pursue a normal male/female relationship. But these psychic Siamese twins have become accustomed to share every experience, professional and erotic, since childhood, and asserting his independence proves traumatic for Beverly. He slides into drug abuse and professional disgrace, and drags codependent Elliot down into the sewer with him. Cronenberg keeps the explicitly weird elements to a minimum. There’s a dream sequence, but perhaps the film’s oddest feature is the fact that, rather than using the traditional reassuring white scrubs, the twins perversely outfit their surgical staff in uniforms of blood red—the color of alarm. Though it’s played straight (for a Cronenberg film), there’s a murky psychological undertone to the incidents that makes Ringers unsettling even beyond its unsavory subject matter. Cronenberg directs crisply, with sharp cinematography on elegant sets that ironically underscore the seediness of the proceedings. Stiff Brit Irons lends a touch of class and even manages to make the unsavory twins sympathetic as they spiral to a professional and personal nadir of barbiturate withdrawal psychosis. Irons performance nabbed Best Actor awards from the New York and Chicago film critics associations and a runner-up prize from the LA film critics, but the project was too strange to be endorsed by the Academy Awards, which procrastinated until the following year to recognize the actor for his role as accused murderer Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (Irons credits Dead Ringers for an “assist” in nabbing him that statuette). Despite the paucity of plaudits, this may be the greatest portrayal of twins by a single actor in movie history, making this unusual and extremely dark film worth a look even for conventional cinephiles.
As strange and implausible as Dead Ringers scenario might seem, it’s actually loosely based on a real-life case.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Who, then, will be drawn to this spectacle? Anyone with a taste for the macabre wit, the weird poignancy and the shifting notions of identity that lend ‘Dead Ringers’ such fascination.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Mighty Utar.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
3 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD RINGERS (1988)”
This sounds incredible. I’m actually hoping to watch more of his films this month since there’s a Cronenberg blogathon coming up. I hadn’t even heard of this one but I’ll definitely seek it out!
where is the Cronenberg blogathon??
Has there been a better actor to pair up with David Cronenberg than Jeremy Irons? This is a profoundly uncomfortable film, and I don’t think it would have been possible with anybody else than Jeremy Irons, who puts in a powerhouse performance. How did it get released into theaters, with acclaim? It was part and parcel of the late ’80s and early ’90s, a very weird time in cinema.
I remember catching parts of this when it showed up on HBO, and it was too much for my young mind to want to have to deal with.
I saw it later, and I thought it was great. Much better than Cronenberg’s follow up with Irons, M. Butterfly.
Much is made of Cronenberg’s obsession with “flesh”, but less talked about (and why?) is his obsession with insane sexuality. I avoided “Crash” for years, but when I finally watched it I was very impressed by just how far Cronenberg was willing to let that train go off the rails.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the stuff Cronenberg has got up to lately, but I can’t imagine they’ll ever let him attack cinema the way he did in the ’90s.
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