Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Films I Love #24: Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)

Much of David Cronenberg's career has been devoted to fearlessly excavating the strangest, most unsettling corners of human psychology and sexuality, expressing primal emotions through the grotesque "body horror" for which the director was, until recently, best known. In many ways, though Dead Ringers is one of Cronenberg's tamest 80s films in terms of its visceral imagery (admittedly, "tame" is a very relative word here), it's possibly his most disturbing inquiry into the lower reaches of human consciousness. It's the story of twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played, via special effects, by Jeremy Irons) who are so close that their identities are intertwined. Indeed, they take advantage of their identical appearance to swap places with one another at will, taking turns giving public appearances, performing surgeries and research, and even switching off with the women they date. The arrogant, confident Elliot and the shy, sweet Bev are two sides of the same personality, complementing and completing one another, together forming a whole person; neither of them could really exist independently.

Nevertheless, Bev decides that he wants to try severing this intimate bond between the brothers when he falls in love with the movie star Claire (Geneviève Bujold), who starts out as just another of the brothers' mutual conquests. As usual, the more confident Elliot seduces and sleeps with her, then allows Bev to take his place the next night. But when Beverly's bond with the needy, masochistic Claire begins to threaten the connection between the brothers, things start falling apart for all three of them. The film is a nightmarish study of psychological dependency, of unhealthy bonds between people — symbolized by the horrifying dream in which Bev envisions himself and his brother joined together by a meaty umbilical cord, which Claire tries to bite through. The film certainly doesn't lack Cronenberg's signature disturbing imagery, but for the most part its "body horror" is more psychological and internal rather than being inscribed in blood and gore. When Bev, driven mad by isolation and grief, simply unveils his set of tools for operating on "mutant women," it's a visceral chill on par with any of Cronenberg's more grisly set pieces. By locating the film's horror almost entirely in the minds and personae of these twins, Dead Ringers becomes one of Cronenberg's finest, most creepily incisive works.


Mykal Banta said...

Only the Cinema: Never, ever will I forget how this film gave me the creeps when I first saw it. I agree with you that Cronenberg is the master of the "uncomfortable" image. Heaven help us all when Croneberg decides to create some gleaming "instruments" as he does here. I mean, the very idea of a film based on "twin gynecologists" has a substantial creep factor right out of the gate.

Great review and really captured the Director's creepy strengths- made me want to go watch EXistenZ again -other film with wonderful "body Horror." --Radiation Cinema!

Joshua said...

Dead Ringers is one of Cronenberg's best and while, as you say, it's not as visually disturbing as some of his other work, it is his most visceral and psychologically terrifying film. It really says a lot of sick and not-quite-untruthful things about male sexuality and perception, and it's one of those films (like Crash, Videodrome, or eXistenZ) that no other director could've made. One thing about it which I find endlessly fascinating is that its resonance is apparently much more potent for males, most women I've seen it with have either been left angry at how awful it is or unimpressed.

On a related note, although I've enjoyed Cronenberg's forays into the mainstream with his last two pictures, I'm afraid with The Matarese Circle he may be too far gone to return to more personal films.

Uncle Gustav said...

An exceptional film, and proof positive one should always avoid men named Ellie or Bev.

When Dead Ringers came out, the R-rated picture was advertised as "the new film by the man who brought you The Fly!"

So I'm sitting in the theatre on opening weekend and in back of me settles a nuclear family for the new movie by the guy who made The Fly. It's mom and dad in their mid-30s, with little junior (about 10) and sis (about 8) with their popcorn and soda and whatever else they could cart down the aisle.

Gearing up for more unbridled terror from the man who brought you The Fly.

Or not.

About ten minutes in, nuclear mom begins whispering to nuclear dad. In the "No Shit Sherlock" scheme of things, it was clear from the start that Dead Ringers was a whole different kettle of fish from The Fly.

I haven't seen the film since, but if I recall there was some sexuality early on, which had nuclear mom shuffling around. Was she putting her hands in front of junior and sis's eyes? Beats me -- mine were fixed on the screen. Cronenberg's vision was so potent, however, that the soao opera unfolding behind me was less a distraction that an amusement.

And then Cronenberg wheeled out the stainless steel gynecological instruments. Yup -- this was gonna get funky, I thought... and both nuclear dad, nuclear mom and myself just knew that so much of this stuff would soon find its way into Genevieve's vagina.

No, kids, this ain't The Fly. The family was busy doing all sorts of arcrobatics in their seats until mom had the kids packed up and ready to go. And I knew in my heart of heart that nuclear dad wanted to stay -- not because he'd blown so much dough on his thirty-minutes in the theatre, but because he knew something really rank and evil was about to go down. The kind of stuff his castrating wife would never stand for at home.

To this day I wonder if he ever went back to the theatre on his own or rented the video.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Joshua, I thought Eastern Promises was easily Cronenberg's best film since Crash, and if you ask me it's a very "personal" film that carries over Cronenberg's signature concerns into a mainstream thriller. I wasn't as enamored of History of Violence, but I think Cronenberg has shown he can work within the mainstream without compromising too much.

Ray, that's a great story about seeing this in the theater. I'm always amazed at the kind of movies people think they should take their kids to, this one being a particularly inappropriate choice for a family night out.

bill r. said...

I love Cronenberg, but this one never clicked with me. I've only seen it once, and want very much to go back to it, but when I saw it I was in the throes of realizing how good Cronenberg is, yet this film, considerd by many to be his best, left me shrugging. What does that say about me, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

A couple of notes:

It's based on, essentially, a true story. The twins in questions were medical residents at the institution where I work. iirc, the book about them was called "Twins".

A *great* ending. I recall when seeing it the theater, when the one leaves the building and enters the phone booth, I was thinking, "No. No! This makes no sense! He CAN'T leave!" And, of course, he returns. Great scene, almost like there's an elastic band around his waist, pulling him back.

I'm a little dubious about his recent work myself; like 'em well enough, but they lack that visceral chill.

Joshua said...

It's not that I don't think Cronenberg doesn't put himself into every film he makes, on the contrary, I doubt he has the ability to hold back (thankfully). I just feel that both Eastern Promises and History of Violence are much more collaborative (creatively, not in the sense that all films are collaborative) efforts than his previous works. Obviously it's worked out fine for him so far, but this next step is a little frightening to me.

With The Matarese Circle, the issue for me is that he's bringing in two huge stars, one of whom is notorious for demanding creative control. The source material is not my favorite, but Cronenberg can "adapt" anything he damn well pleases (The Dead Zone, for instance.), but the stars worry me some. That said, I hope you get the chance to say 'I told you so,' as nothing would make me happier than to have a movie as good as the last two.

Ed Howard said...

Bill, since you saw it when you were just starting to appreciate Cronenberg, maybe you'd like it more now? It's much subtler than something like Videodrome (my other favorite Cronenberg), and might work best in the context of Cronenberg's whole body of work. Not sure what it says about you, other than you're not a fan of gyno-horror.

Brian, a funny story is that Cronenberg was originally planning to use the title of the book, Twins, but then a producer bought the rights to the title and used it for the Danny DeVito/Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of that name. Would've been even funnier if they were both released as Twins, resulting in even better confusions than the ones resulting from people trying to rent the race drama Crash and winding up with Cronenberg's version.

Ed Howard said...

Joshua, obviously I hope you're wrong, but to me Matarese Circle looks more likely to be like History of Violence (an awkward, surface-level attempt at a mainstream thriller) rather than the deeper, more substantial Eastern Promises. You may be right that there's not much maneuvering room within that material for Cronenberg. But then, I'm sure some people said similar things about him adapting Stephen King.

Joshua said...

Well, I have to interject and mention that I do really enjoy History of Violence, and that I get the feeling that if Matarese fails, it will probably fail in a way much more typical than any Cronenberg film before it. As with The Dead Zone (and in my opinion, History of Violence), I'm certain Cronenberg can alter any source material into something fascinating, but the presence of Cruise still frightens me. Although after Collateral and the publicity beatdown, he may be a little more willing to work with Cronenberg than I would think.

Here's hoping it's a masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

Seeing a Cronenberg film in a theater is always an experience- I saw "Eastern Promises" in a crowd of 18-20 year old college kids and there was complete pandemonium when the nude fight scene popped up. People were giggling loudly to cover their discomfort with male nudity, some were walking out, some were talking loudly to each other about how disgusting and tasteless the film was. It was wonderful- first they were horrified by the penis, and with the shock of that still fresh grisly violence was thrown at them. Sooooo fun. I absolutely cannot imagine what seeing "Crash" in its theatrical release was like- I'd imagine plenty of unsuspecting old people that didn't know what the NC-17 rating meant, the kind that will see absolutely any matinee at an "arthouse theater" because they like the child-free environment, were a little surprised.

"Dead Ringers" has always been my second favorite Cronenberg because of its unbelievable iciness and the total uniqueness of its subject matter. I especially love the three-person slow dance scene, where the use of pop music (I think it's "In the Still of the Night") has a completely jarring effect since it's almost never done in Cronenberg films. Part of me will always secretly wish he'd indulged in some of the prurience of the pretty-much-unrelated source novel and included some overt Jeremy-Jeremy twincest.

Anonymous said...

DEAD RINGERS is my favorie Cronenberg, although I like A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and a few others quite a bit. I previously owned the Criterion CAV LD box set, then the DVD. (of DEAD RINGERS) I am not in agreement with Ed that the middling EASTERN PROMISES is a sronger film than HISTORY, but I rarely disagree with Ed, and respect his position, and the opinion sof many others I respect who are with him.

Great capsule of a film that warrants placement in this elitist group.

Anonymous said...

By the way, this was really a wonderful thread, well-deserved with this film.

James Gracey said...

Great review, and some really rather startling images too. This is one of my favourite Cronenberg films - so creepy and melancholy.


Karen said...

Interesting that Joshua remarks that this film has its most powerful impact on men, while women seem unimpressed--and all the commenters (I believe) ARE men.

To offer one woman's opinion, I'll say that this is my favorite Cronenberg by defaulr, because I find it too difficult to watch most of his films (not crazy about horror or gore), although I did also very much like A History of Violence.

Dead Ringers is not an easy film for a woman to watch. I remember spending most of the last half of it huddled in the corner of my couch, all muscles clenched, possibly rocking back and forth. What kept me watching was the brilliance of Irons' performance along with the care and subtlety of the direction. Subtlety might not be a word often associated with Cronenberg, but the twins' descent into madness was quite delicately a brutal sort of way. The true story on which its based was first, I believe, related in an article in New York Magazine, which I'd read at the time with a similar muscle-tensing horror, though nothing like that which the film evoked.

I know a lot of women who've seen this film, and they are all quite impressed with it, but each one tends to unconsciously cross her legs at the mention of it.