David Cronenberg’s name has become shorthand for skin-crawling body horror, and many of his films do lean into the extremely visceral. But while Dead Ringers tells a story rooted in the medical profession, its shocks are (mostly) more psychologically distressing than stomach-turning—with no potency lost 35 years after its initial release.
You’ve probably seen promos for Prime Video’s upcoming series adaptation of Dead Ringers, which make great use of the original’s blood-red surgical scrubs—a simple color swap that proves incredibly effective at injecting unease into an otherwise sterile hospital environment. The 2023 version stars Rachel Weisz as the story’s unusually co-dependent twins, and it’ll be fascinating to see how making the main characters sisters rather than brothers changes the complex themes it explores. While we wait to see, there’s no better time to revisit the 1988 original, starring Jeremy Irons as Drs. Elliot and Beverly Mantle—Toronto gynecologists specializing in female fertility who’ve found great success both despite and because of their oddities. While separately they’re brilliant, the power of their brains working together has made them superstars in their field, as Beverly makes great strides in research and Elliot puts that work into practice.
However, they’re also extremely ethically slippery, thinking nothing of impersonating each other depending on the situation, and that includes taking turns romancing their unaware patients. The viewer has no trouble understanding why this charade works so well; the Mantles’ carefully calibrated relationship enables both of them to get exactly what they want, and it’s hard to tell them apart at first. Through the subtleties of Irons’ masterful dual performance, however, the distinctions between Elliot and Beverly become more apparent. Elliot, who refers to Bev as “baby brother,” is the stronger, more outgoing personality; Bev is more emotionally fragile, something that’s made very clear when he falls for the Mantles’ latest sexual conquest: Claire (Geneviève Bujold), a famous actress who desperately wants to have children, but whose anomalous cervix—something that makes her instantly fascinating to both doctors—is working against her. Bev’s attachment to Claire throws off the balance between the twins, something that only gets more perilous when he begins to share Claire’s pill-popping habit.
Dead Ringers’ screenplay (by Cronenberg and Norman Snider) is based on Twins, a novel inspired by real-life twin gynecologists who were discovered dead together in 1975 in a New York City apartment, having perished at just 45 from apparent drug-related causes. You don’t need any more details to see how that tragedy provided a fascinating framework for Cronenberg’s film, which further ratchets up the ickiness by giving Bev a peculiar fetish for “mutant women.” It’s sparked by Claire’s unusual anatomy but gets taken to the extreme when Bev commissions an artist (played by Stephen Lack, star of Cronenberg’s Scanners) to make a series of barbaric-looking gynecological tools that—in one of Dead Ringers’ most shocking, most overtly horror-movie scenes—he attempts to use on an actual patient.
Even without knowing what befell the Mantles’ real-life inspirations, you can see Dead Ringers is headed full-tilt into extreme darkness. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that for all its ickiness it’s a hell of an entertaining movie. Irons missed out on winning an Oscar thanks to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, a slight that feels impossible when you revisit Irons’ performance—full of nuance and incredible range, spread across two characters whose lives soar to professional heights and plunge to junkie lows, and who are tied to each other with a love as deep as it is undeniably unhealthy. And, true to Cronenberg, the movie’s not without its sly moments of humor, knife twists of pathos, and arresting imagery—whether that’s a nightmare that reinforces the idea that Elliot and Bev are actually conjoined twins, those sinister crimson surgical scrubs, a drug-addled Bev’s pitiful longing for ice cream, or Elliot’s forceful declaration that yuppie touchstone Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous is “my favorite fucking program.”
Dead Ringers the movie is currently streaming on HBO Max; Dead Ringers the series arrives April 21 on Prime Video.
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