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Dead Ringers

Jeremy Irons stars in an incredible dual role as identical twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, who, upon meeting a starlet having difficulty becoming pregnant, slowly spiral into madness when one of the twins becomes infatuated with her. Director David Cronenberg explores the horror of being inextricably connected with someone else.

Of all of David Cronenberg's various films, I think Dead Ringers may be my favorite because it is so cerebral. A common thread through many of Cronenberg's horror films is the concept of humans being just flesh. That's the source of the horror in some of his works. The essence of horror is not necessarily fear -- but the loss of control. The existential horror is that we cannot control the demands and weaknesses of our own flesh.

In his remake of the classic sci-fi horror film The Fly, Cronenberg expresses that existential body-horror  when Dr. Brundle has his genes spliced with the genes of a fly. His body begins to change, which, while visually horrifying to see is only the beginning of the horror. We don't control our bodies as intimately as we would like -- Brundle's body starts changing into something else and he is powerless to stop the progress. But the worst aspect of this transformation comes in a scene in which Brundle's romantic interest visits him, and he acknowledges that aside from his body changing, who he is as a person is changing -- he feels the fly's emotions, the longing for violence, and he warns her away before the last vestiges of his humanity are lost to him.

The horror of corporealness is a recurring theme in Cronenberg's work, and in Dead Ringers he leverages that horror in dramatic form. There are no exploding heads (Scanners), no homocidal homonculi spontaneously generated by repressed negative emotions (The Brood) and no abdominal video cassette slots (Videodrome). No, this Cronenberg tale has no fantastic elements, which makes it that much more horrifying and sad.

The Mantle twins, you see, are so identical that you can't tell them apart -- and yet they are fantastically different. Elliot is the charmer, the strong, cynical, narcissistic twin. Beverly is shy, reserved, sensitive and uncomfortable with women. It has to be said here that Jeremy Irons pulls off an incredible display of acting skill. Despite how identical they are, you never wonder which twin you're watching. In every respect from posture, eye movement, diction and hand movements, Irons portrays the two twins as being very different. Like a painting that is expressed with such skill that the brushstrokes vanish, it is much the same here. The novelty of the same actor, acting with himself in the same scene eventually vanishes. It's not a stunt, as Eddie Murphy might do by playing fifteen roles in a single film, Irons is just that skilled an actor.

When the film starts, Elliot and Beverly have a simple setup that works. Beverly handles the science, writing the research papers and the day-to-day work of being a gynecologist. Elliot handles acceptance speeches, awards ceremonies and the political end of their operation. When Elliot starts up a romance with a patient named Claire (Genevieve Buchold -- in a brave performance) who cannot have children because she has three uteruses, he decides to do what he has done in the past -- 'share' her with Beverly.

The trouble begins when Beverly begins to truly love the kinky, emotional and sensitive Claire -- an actress who desperately wants to conceive but whom nature has damned to infertility. In her sense she feels a compulsion to conceive but cannot do what her body demands. This unfulfillable desire in her has twisted her, damaged her in some way. Naturally, Beverly feels connected to Claire.

But is his connection to Elliot stronger? Can he separate himself from his brother? Could he survive, emotionally, without Elliot? What will happen to the brothers if one of them starts to spiral out of control? Like the famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, who were connected at the abdomen, their fates are intertwined:


The twins died on the same day in January of 1874. Chang, who had contracted pneumonia, died rather suddenly in his sleep. Eng awoke to find his brother dead, and called for his wife and children to attend to him. A doctor was summoned to perform an emergency separation, but Eng refused to be separated from his dead brother. He died three hours later.

The Mantle brothers are not physically connected, of course, but their minds are connected.

Dead Ringers isn't for everyone -- there are some fairly kinky sex scenes, lots of drug use, and some medical horror that will make people cringe in discomfort -- for Cronenberg masterfully puts a long, slow march into madness on the big screen. It's not a shrieking descent, it's more of a sad, horrible whisper than rises up into a wail. I would call Dead Ringers Cronenberg's best work of all time, and a film that's delightfully hard to categorize -- a horror drama.

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