“Don’t make me dream that again”
The last line of David Cronenberg‘s Dead Ringers is on the nose and yet still disturbingly surreal. Jeremy Irons (playing twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle) phones his lover Claire (Geneviève Bujold) only to hear the telling reply, “Who is this?” While we too find ourselves uncertain which is on the line, his inability to answer shows the disturbing truth that it may be both or neither. Ellie and Bev have been inseparable from birth, challenging each other and working together to gift the world their genius. They’ve shared a family and an education; their looks, occupation, and every sexual partner invited into their bed with a mischievous smile. So when the singular, emotionally destructive love of a woman threatens to fracture this communal existence, their equilibrium in unavoidably thrust into a hellish downward spiral.
Inspired by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s biography of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, Cronenberg and co-screenwriter Norman Snider took what was already a creepy tale of twins found dead together of barbiturate addiction withdrawal in 1975 and fused it with the Canadian auteur’s “new flesh” philosophy. The highly sexualized horror of Videodrome merges with the futuristic science fiction of Scanners in a terrifying way once Bev enlists metallurgist/artist Wolleck (Stephen Lack) to cast a series of ghastly tools coined “instruments for operating on mutant women”. Allusions to famed Chinese Siamese twins Chang and Eng crop up as a disturbing nightmare manifests mankind’s curiosity about twins having a psychic bond into physical connective tissue. A psychotic break triggered by jealousy and fear of abandonment can’t help but force them to do what God didn’t: combine into one.
Cronenberg’s intensely dark follow-up to mainstream success on The Dead Zone and The Fly has him at his inventive and scary best with a central performance by Irons that somehow manages to give two disparate characterizations at once. Even when one is engaged with pretending to be the other, you can tell at the start who’s who and what’s going on. Elliot’s the brashly confident orator while Beverly’s more sensitive introvert proves better suited to research and patients in need of fertility assistance. Theirs is true love bonded by genetics and intelligence, yet one would be ignorant not to see Bev’s reliance on Ellie’s strength and detailed descriptions of what he must do. The latter still needs the former too, though, because his superior ego can only be fed if Beverly focuses on the work.
And this is why things go awry when a tryst for celebrity conquest with actress Claire Niveau becomes a love affair despite her discovering the pair’s less than savory act of sharing everything and everyone. This is uncharted territory: Beverly never prized something above his brother and Elliot never lost absolute control. Claire’s refusal to see them both romantically, however, puts Beverly on an island unable to tell Elliot details of their sordid affair now that these intimate experiences were his and his alone. This fracture of complete transparency fills him up without a release, his need for Elliot to decipher his feelings lost. The surplus of emotions threatens his sanity while narcotics, depression, and paranoia conjure enough jealousy and spite to warp his thought process into that of a savior battling creatures only he can see.
The psychological trappings of this breakdown turn Beverly’s acceptance of being a twin from blessing to abnormally inhuman. His desire for Claire wages a war within himself to sever the bonds to his brother literally as she does figuratively in dreams with a carnal bite. Suspense quickly evolves to horror in a coldly clinical overlapping where Bev and Ellie become so intertwined that they swap personas, altering strength for weakness and vice versa until you cannot tell where one begins and the next ends. As much a deformity now as Claire’s trifurcated cervix, the need to remove mutations as an act of moral duty causes everything to unravel and psychosis to replace rational thought. One’s demise—professionally or personally—is intrinsically the other’s too when neither monster from man nor deranged from sane can be differentiated.
Dead Ringers is an eerie, unforgettable experience with subject matter that will have you squirming on all levels in your seat. Much of this comes from two tour de force performances by Irons inexplicably rendered simultaneously onscreen as though he were two separate men during production. You feel sympathy for Beverly—in both his thankless toiling behind the scenes and constant inability to do anything unless his brother says so. There is a modicum of revulsion for Elliot playing games in a chauvinistically selfish way, getting off on his twin’s pleasure from afar almost more than his own. And as the barbiturate use morphs from taking pills for sexual explosiveness to elaborate cocktails necessary to stay even and functional, we watch Irons’ pristine stoicism melt into nervous shaking and drunken stumbling before stability returns with a maniacal calm.
Things aren’t perfect despite the amazing effect of Irons’ duplicity, but I believe it’s more a testament to 1988 than the Cronenberg’s vision. A double prologue showing the Mantle twins as boys and college students seems stilted with the second’s inclusion blatantly introducing the Mantle Retractor before it comes back into play much later on. Many transitions between scenes also cut jarringly enough to give you pause to wonder whether something is missing from the print. It could be the removal of dream sequences with a miniature Mantle maquette, a conscious decision to keep us distressed, or simply a product of its age. Either way, these quibbling issues won’t distract you from its brilliantly nightmarish identity crisis or the manifestation of subtle terror so many already unsettlingly believe lies beneath identical twins’ flesh and blood.