Dead Ringer (1988): Cronenberg’s Chilly, Stylish Film, Starring Jeremy Irons in Dual Role

“Dead Ringers” is an unsettling essay in body horror, sexual panic, and the bourgeois family relationships. In this impressively accomplished work, David Cronenberg’s biological horror is entirely submerged within–and conveyed through–the psychological exploration of character.

Based on the real-life siblings, Stephen and Syril Marcus, Dead Ringers tells the story of identical twin gynecologists–suave Elliot and sensitive Beverly, bipolar sides of one personality–who share the same practice, the same apartment and the same women. When a new patient, glamorous actress Claire Niveau, challenges their eerie bond, they descend into a whirlpool of mind games, madness and murder.

Cronenberg was inspired by the real-life story of respected twin NYC gynecologists Steven and Cyril Marcus, who in 1975 were found dead in their garbage-strewn Upper Esat Side apartment, a double suicide brought on by barbiturate addiction.

Elliott and Beverly Mantle (both played by Irons) are introduced as a pair of brilliant gynecologists who open a state-of-the-art fertility clinic and share an opulent apartment. Though physically identical, the twins possess very different personalities. Elliott is a cad, suave, debonair, and self-confident to the point of being arrogant. In contrast, Beverly is shy, studious, and more sensitive. Elliott has always procured women for Beverly, seducing them first then turning them over to his shy sibling, unbeknownst to the women.

Trouble begins, when famous actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Boujold) arrives at the clinic to take care of her infertility problem. Though they both share her physically, Beverly falls in love for the first time, driving a wedge between the brothers.

Unsettling, and often amusing, cold yet personal, “Dead Ringers” horrifies us as viewers, rather than shock us with spectacular displays of gore, such as the exploding heads in Cronenberg’s “Scanners,” or the gaping stomach cavities of “Videodrome.”

The film’s critical and commercial successes are based on its subject matter, raising disturbing questions about the nature of individual identity, and exploring issues of eroticism, narcissism, misogyny, and incest. But they also rely on the impeccable execution, specifically the director’s precise mise-en-scene, astute command of color, decor, and camera movement. Cronenberg, then known for “The Fly” and other horror films made in Canada, directs the film with unparallel cool, and remarkable restraint.

During the past several years, Cronenberg has matured into a filmmaker of remarkable scope, able to convey his thematic concerns with skill without ever sacrificing his individual signature. Quietly devastating, “Dead Ringers” should be considered Cronenberg’s first masterpiece, the film that marks his maturation and entry into the pantheon of the century’s most provocative filmmakers. This richly textured film continues the detailed character explorations of “The Fly” and other films.

The critic Gail Marcus sees “Dead Ringers” as the ultimate (and one might add nightmarish) film about the nuclear family, first depicted as charnel house, then as abattoir, a story of born winners who become born dead. Other critics see the film as a poignant satire of the medical profession in general and gynecology in particular, as the domain of doppelgangers and primitive torture instruments passing as medical tools.

A bravura performance by Jeremy Irons makes this gristly story of twin gynecologists who descend into drugs, madness and finally suicide, a chilling examination of masculine sexual anxiety and powerful critique of the patriarchal control of the medical profession.

Indeed, Irons tour-de-force performance as both twins won him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, and Bujold was awarded the Los Angeles Film Critics Best Supporting Actress Award. Cronenbergs seamless melding of split-screen techniques and body doubles won him Best Director honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Credits

Running time: 115 minutes

Producers: David Cronenberg and Marc Boyman
Director: Cronenberg
Screenplay: Cronenberg and Norman Snider, based on book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Editing: Ronald Sanders
Music: Howard Shore
Production design: Carol Spier
F/X: Gordon Smith
Costumes: Denise Cronenberg

Cast

Beverly Mantl/Elliott Mantle (Jeremy Irons)
Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold)