Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 15, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1988)

11. Dead Ringers

Twins have a special history in literature and cinema. The image of two different people who look identical, born at the same time, understandably fires the imagination. Most stories about twins play up on this eerie quality, this sense that there's something not quite right about the connection between indistinguishable siblings. Occasionally, reality fits this notion. Stewart and Cyril Marcus were twin gynecologists. When Stewart died of a barbiturate overdoes, Cyril died three days later of no obvious cause. This unusual story would inspire the novel “Twins” by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. The novel would, in turn, inspire David Cronenberg to make the film “Dead Ringers.” The adaptation would move the director outside the horror genre without leaving behind his trademark obsessions.

Elliot and Beverly Mantle are identical twins. Elliot is the outgoing one, while Beverly is more shy. As boys, a perverse interest in sex led them to study gynecology in school. Now, as adults, they run a successful fertility clinic. The two often pretend to be each other. Elliot will seduce a woman and, once he's bored, pass her on to Beverly. Their latest conquest is actress Claire Niveau. Claire has an unusual, three-headed uterus. She also has a casual addiction to pills. Beverly falls in love with her. After she leaves to shoot a movie, he develops a crippling drug addiction of his own. Elliot attempts to pull his brother out of his stupor but soon starts to take on the same tendencies.

“Dead Ringers” is a layered story. The twins frequently recount the story of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, and specifically the mysterious nature of their death. This foreboding tale becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the twins. “Dead Ringers” wraps up themes of sex, identity, and bodily discomfort to tell a tale of co-dependence. Elliot and Beverly sleep in the same bed. They have sex with the same women. They work in the same building. The two are so connected that one seems to pass his illness, his depression and addiction, onto the other. Throughout the film, we see images of twins in the uterus, connected to each other. “Dead Ringers” makes this image literal, showing the unbreakable and ultimately fatal link between Beverly and Elliot.

The film's original poster showed the twins' faces overlapping with each other until they made one face. This is a nice visual summation of the film's themes of identity. Beverly and Elliot are so close, they begin to wonder where one begins and the other ends. The two look identical enough that they can easily swap places and most people won't notice. There are several scenes in “Dead Ringers” where the viewer isn't immediately certain which twin they are looking at. In the last third, there's a brief moment where their movement is perfectly synced. The film's final line of dialogue is someone asking Beverly who he is, seeming to point towards the confusion he feels. Eventually, even the twins loose the ability to tell themselves apart, such as when Elliot asks a pair of twin escorts to call him by his brother's name. The malleability of identity is a theme Cronenberg had toyed with in “Scanners” and “The Fly” but it comes to the forefront here.

One of the first scenes in “Dead Ringers” is about the Mantle twins as boys. They discuss sex, comparing human relations to those of fish. The sequence ends with them propositioning a girl, suggesting she have sex with them as an experiment. This begins the movie's scientific approach to kinky sexuality. Beverly and Elliot trade women, the more submissive brother getting the more confident brother's cast-offs. When Claire asks Beverly to spank her, he is completely confused. But he quickly learns and is soon tying her up with rubber tubes and surgical clamps. Yet the film never looses Beverly's squeamishness to physical intimacy. Cronenberg previously limited his discomfort to the human body to mutated forms. In “Dead Ringers,” that approach now applies to regular (or, at least, regular on the surface) bodies.

More than anything else, “Dead Ringers” is a crushing depiction of drug abuse. Beverly's ingestion of pills is nonchalant at first. He does them to get over his social anxiety, to increase his sexual euphoria with Claire. However, he quickly becomes dependent on them. He needs drugs to go to sleep and he needs drugs to get out of bed in the morning. Soon, his addiction takes over his life, to the point where he starts shooting up at work. “Dead Ringers'” characterization of drug addiction borders on the melodramatic, like when Beverly tries to huff from a patient's gas mask during surgery. However, the film perfectly captures the desperate nature of addiction, how someone can quickly come to rely on pills for even the most basic function. This realistic approach is especially depressing.

With “Dead Ringers,” the director leaves behind the horror genre for the first time since “Fast Company.” But only sort of. The film is an extremely dark psychological character study but still continues the director's fascination with abnormal bodies. Claire's rare cervical condition has her repeatedly being referred to as a mutant. There's a nightmare sequence where Beverly and Elliot are connected by a hideous lump of flesh. In the throes of his drug addiction, Beverly designs bizarre looking medical tools, instruments for operating on mutated women. These terrifying sculptures, ultimately used to sever the Mantle boys' connection, are the film's most famous image. They are not out of place with the medical horrors from the director's previous films. Considering how the twins' mental connection dictates what happens to their bodies, Cronenberg's fascination with transforming internal problems into external ones remains.

On paper, the decision to get one actor to play twins is a gimmicky one. It seems like a stunt to earn awards. Well, Jeremy Irons did win some awards for “Dead Ringers” but his casting still isn't a stunt. Irons' brilliantly creates two separate characters with just his body language. Except when the film is intentionally blurring the line between them, you can always tell which is Elliot and which is Beverly. It's two impressive performances from Irons. Beverly endears your sympathy. Elliot frequently earns your disgust. Yet you feel sorry for both of them once their world begins to fall apart. It's an excellent performance from Irons.

As in “The Fly,” Cronenberg mostly narrows his cast here mostly down to three people. (Though only two actors.) Genevieve Bujold co-stars as Claire. Bujold brings her own level of sadness to the part. Claire is desperate for affection. When she can't have the affection of a child, due to her abnormal plumbing, she seeks out the company of different men. It would've been easy to make Claire the film's villain, the woman that tears the brothers apart. Bujold gives the part more depth. She comes off as someone who is mostly well adjusted with her vices and disorders, balancing them with a normal life. As opposed to the brothers, who are out of balance and unable to control themselves.

“The Fly” was a tragedy and “Dead Ringers” continues in a similar direction. As Beverly begins to beat his addiction, Elliot develops one of his own. Reunited, the two fall into a self-destructive pattern. They retreat into child-like personalities. They swallow pills like candy. At one point, they throw a birthday party for each other, eating cake by the handful and gulping orange soda. Elliot weeps like a baby when he can't have ice cream. These scenes are immensely sad, the brothers attempting to regain their innocence even as their lives completely fall apart. The final images show Beverly still trying to draw comfort from Elliot, even after he's dead. “Dead Ringers” forms into a deeply sad story of two man-children, unable to cope with the world without each other.

“Dead Ringers” is Cronenberg's moodiest looking film yet. It would see the director working with cinematrographer Peter Suschitzky for the first time, a partnership that would continue throughout the rest of Cronenberg's career. The two create a highly expressive visual experience. “Dead Ringers” is bathed in melancholic blues and sickly grays. This certainly matches what the Mantle twins are feeling. That use of color continues in other ways. The bright red medical gowns the twins wear during surgery are unforgettable. The director's interest in architecture returns as well, as the modern design of the twins' apartment seems to speak to their detachment from the rest of the world.

David Cronenberg's previous films were, no matter how sophisticated, straight-ahead horror movies. Howard Shore dutifully provided horror movie scores, no matter how pretty. With “Dead Ringers,” Shore is allowed to make something more elegant. His music is undeniably pretty. The opening music feels like dawn breaking, cascading notes beautifully dancing over each other until a clear melody rises up. The music implies the nostalgic connection between the brothers, hearkening back to the simpler times of their childhood. Shore, of course, incorporates more foreboding undertones as well, just so we know this is going to end badly. Ultimately, the music is characterized by moments of serene beauty, not portentous bass.  Which makes a nice contrast with the grim film.

“Dead Ringers” is a real downer. The film leaves you with an intensely sad feeling, as you've just watched two lives completely fall apart. Yet it's a valuable experience. Irons' performance is excellent. Cronenberg's direction is fantastic. The film's themes and ideas are intriguing. The film shows the director's continued ability to balance his fascination with strong narratives. Following the success of “The Fly,” it proves that Cronenberg could make interesting, disturbing movies that didn't rely on bubbling gore or malformed special effects. [Grade: B+]

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