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Dead Ringers (1988)

by on 2012/08/15

“You should have been there.”

“I was.”

* * * *

Toronto, 1988. Twin brothers (Appaloosa’s Jeremy Irons in both roles), brilliant but temperamental, run a highly regarded fertility clinic for women. Only women, they’d remind us, though they’re morbidly close to each other. Torn between innocence and exploitation, their personalities — Beverly “the sweet one” and Elliot “the shit” — are flip-sides of the same coin with scarcely a trace of moderation in either.

Elli unethically conquers a succession of their clientele, sexually speaking, then steps aside to move along, bullying Bev into taking his place. At least until their latest victim (Last Night’s Genevieve Bujold) detects the transition between them. The revelation threatens their arrangement, stability, and livelihood, even as one of them finds he is falling for her.

Dead Ringers’ story threw me after The Fly, The Dead Zone, and Scanners. With nary a sci-fi element to be found, it’s a whole lot of character work. The title itself conjured in my mind a skeleton ringing a doorbell. (In fact I was thinking of the poster for 1986’s House.) I expected a different movie, something overtly ghoulish, a Doublemint Psycho, perhaps.

Instead the hook is the eerie performance-times-two of Mr. Irons, as well as our innate fascination with — or dread of — sexuality. Once director David Cronenberg captures his audience, he delivers a compelling affair, where psychic powers and metamorphoses are replaced by conventional interpersonal conflicts.

A male who is sensitive to being given a traditionally female name. An older sibling who refers to his (scant) junior as “baby brother”. Quibbling over millimeters in height differences. These issues may seem trifling yet, in the care of Irons, these little snipes help fuel the tension.

He really won me over. Not that I didn’t believe in him but, when I began to watch, I assumed I’d be nitpicking the “twinning” effects. I looked for stand-ins, join lines, matting, and odd transparencies. However, even the vaguest hint of discolouring in shared scenes was not enough to distract me from the actor’s tour de force.

Of course, it wouldn’t feel like a Cronenberg production without a few grisly images, and this one has a couple of near-doozies, in a dream sequence, and getting toward to the end. I say “near” because they’re comparatively tame, provocative in concept rather than execution. I was actually more disturbed by footage of a surgical procedure shown in a medical class about midway through. I imagine its inclusion was intended as irony.

In short, if you’re fine with gynecology without the nudity, an unconventional romantic triangle, and non-superhuman mutants, then Dead Ringers might be the Cronenberg film of your dreams. I went in expecting something quite different, was surprised, but not disappointed, and emerged with a new appreciation for the pivots between body horror and character drama.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

115 minutes

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