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Dead Ringers (1988) October 11th, 2020

Is a month of horror movies complete if you haven’t watched a Cronenberg movie? No, not unless you’ve seen them all… and then, ya know… watch something new… Luckily Dead Ringers is both Cronenberg AND new (to us at least)!

We couldn’t find Dead Ringers on a streaming service without paying more than our normal subscription fees. Paying extra to rent or buy a digital movie feels like admitting defeat. We found it in the On-Demand section of our cable box (we’ve since cut the cable cord because it’s one-stop-shop video entertainment model is archaic and out of touch with the modern day streaming market… At least until everyone gets tired keeping track of all content across every streaming service from Apple TV+, Disney +, CBS All Access, HBO Max, Netflix, Amazon Prime, PBS Living, Crunchyroll, YouTube Red, Peacock, Shudder, SlingTV, Starz, Sundance Now, The Criterion Channel, Arrow Video Channel, Philo, Hulu, Vudu, Quibi, Seeso and whatever guttural onomatopoeia the next marketing exec barfs up before someone manages to merge all these services into one easy to use point-and-click platform. Then before you know it we’re paying more for that thing we decided wasn’t worth the trouble in the first place… Cable.). C’est la vie. Spoilers ahead.

Have you ever wanted to be in two places at once? Ever wished you had another self to finish chores in half the time? That’s what twins Elliot and Beverly accomplished in Dead Ringers. They own and operate the most successful fertility clinic in the city. Elliot is suave, confident, and handles the clinic’s social obligations like public appearances and accepting awards. Beverly is a shy workaholic whose jealousy of his brother’s playboy lifestyle incites the film’s conflict. Beverly begins abusing drugs and blows-off his responsibilites in the office. Their practice falls apart and eventually they lose their medical licenses before the film crescendos into a bizarre DIY surgery nightmare.

There’s a lot of myths about twins out there. Some people believe a supernatural connection exist between twins, allowing them to experience each other’s emotions or even physical sensations across great distances without foreknowledge. Most movies about twins set up a familiar dichotomy of one ‘good twin’ and one ‘bad twin’. The ‘twin trope’ is as tired today as it was in 1988 when David Cronenberg released Dead Ringers.

Dead Ringers doesn’t tow the twin trope line. Instead of one twin being bad while the other’s good, Dead Ringers defies expectations and tells the story of two brothers who’re neither good or bad just human. Cronenberg makes Beverly pitifully envious of Elliot’s accolades and mistresses while availing himself with only the scraps of either. Eventually Beverly begins acting more like Elliot (his interpretation of Elliot at least) and things quickly get out of hand. Eventually Beverly (the parabolic ‘good twin’) is a drug addict who lets their practice crumble, while Elliot (‘bad twin’) turns from abusive alpha male to shining knight rescuing his brother from addiction.

Dead Ringers plays with the convention of good and bad to help the audience understand that prejudging someone based on your personal subjective moral biases unfairly determines that person’s worth. A religious leader using tax exempt status and ‘seed faith’ to finance mega mansions and private jets isn’t a good person just because they lead a congregation. Neither is a protestor a violent criminal because someone at the same event threw a brick through the windows at Target. Look at a persons intent when evaluating their actions.

That’s one of Dead Ringers‘ strongest themes. Despite being the more studious and gentle twin, Beverly’s abusing drugs and women came from a jealousy of Elliot’s ability to deftly juggle the same vices. Elliot sacrificing his prestigious new job to pull his brother out of the depths of addiction is born from love and kinship despite his seemingly heartless exterior (WINK).

Jeremy Irons exercises the range of his acting as the dual leads. He’s off-putting and slimy when playing Elliot then timid and reckless when playing Beverly, oftentimes on screen at the same time. Having the same actor play two characters in one scene had been accomplished many times before in films like (off the top of my head) The Parent Trap and the Laurel and Hardy film Brats before Dead Ringers made it look easy. Older movies using this effect were often plagued by imperfect blending that left unwanted artifacts on the composite shot. Masks wouldn’t be cut perfectly or the edit point would make the shot jump. Dead Ringers avoids most if not all these classic mistakes. The effects are astoundingly clean for a 30 year old movie. The most impressive shot involves a camera on a track moving backwards as characters come in and out of frame speaking to one of the twins (let’s say it’s Elliot to keep it simple). Elliot walks through the shot and greets his twin brother before leaving frame and the other twin (process of elimination says it’s Beverly) continues moving through the shot interacting with people who never seem to have left the frame. And it all looks like one unbroken shot. Impecable craftsmanship.

The acting in Dead Ringers is phenomenal, the special effects are subtle yet astounding… but this is Cronenberg right? Where are the bugs and mutants? Where’s the body horror? Well… It’s in there, but the creepy unsettling nature of Dead Ringers burns slow like an incense stick. Irons plays Beverly’s gradual descent into drug addiction well. His progressive moodiness and irritability creeps slowly until you realize he’s lost control as it gets bad, and then it gets worse. I’m most familiar with Cronenberg’s work from Naked Lunch where his eagerness to put the weirdness centerstage came early and often. He’s more subdued in Dead Ringers and saves the otherworldly surgical tools and horror for the third act. If you’re looking for a Kafkaesque gross-out Canadian horror film, you’ll probably be disappointed in Dead Ringers.

There are moments in Dead Ringers where I suspected some sort of sci-fi elements were just around the corner, but they never came. Instead, Dead Ringers‘ plot includes some real world information on twin studies (specifically conjoined twins) while flirting with the supernatural relationship between the two leads without fully committing to exploring those ideas.

Dead Ringers wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t a gross out body horror massacre. It wasn’t the story of twins with supernatural abilities, or a story where one twin’s only a figment of the other twin’s imagination like Tyler Durden or something. Instead it’s an unsettling examination of personal identity. What effect does a sibling rivalry have on the sense of self when you’re genetically identical to your sibling? What would it look like if a lifetime of losing to someone exactly like yourself slowly eroded your self identity? That’s an unusual horror, that’s Dead Ringers.

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