Cronenberg is a master of body horror. From the vaginal VCRs of Videodrome to grotesque transformations in The Fly. His films are dripping with viscera and bodies in utter pain and destruction, which is why his film, Dead Ringers, may not necessarily appeal to the typical Cronenberg fan. Released 30 years ago today, Dead Ringers is a much slower film than previous Cronenberg works, and focuses less on abject body horror, but meditates on internal body horror (read: mutant vaginas and descending into madness). This film is about body horror as much as any Cronenberg film. But, he presents it in a very different, meditative, but still nauseating, way.
Dead Ringers is about twin gynecologists, Beverly and Elliot Mantle, both played by Jeremy Irons. They share everything: an apartment, a medical practice, and even women. At one point, Elliot tells Beverly, “you haven’t experienced something until I’ve experienced it, too.” They are as attached as they could be without being Siamese twins. They are obsessed with each other. But then, famous actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) visits their practice with what the Mantle brothers describe as a mutant vagina. Beverly then becomes obsessed with her, sending him into a spiral that leads to madness and some sick, twisted gynecological tools.
The film’s opening credits reveal everything you need to know about Dead Ringers. As melancholy, orchestral music softly begins to play, a red background appears. As the credits flash on-screen, so do medieval images of tools, twins, and birth. This opening montage links the body horror of these tools resembling torture devices to the strange nature of twins. The whole opening credit sequence resembles a demented womb and sets an unsettling tone for the film to come.
In terms of body horror, Dead Ringers very obviously deals with mutations, particularly with vaginas and the lengths Beverly will go to ‘fix’ them. This body horror cannot be separated from the medical. The discoveries of mutated vaginas are always made as a woman lies on the examination table. Beverly even creates these archaic tools to use in the surgical theatre and cure ‘deformed’ patients. However, since the audience is not shown these ‘deformities’, we must trust the doctor that they exist. They could be fabricated by Beverly or they could be real, which is part of the film’s horror. We must trust the doctor implicitly, even if it seems he may not be telling the truth.
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Beverly also can’t separate the medical from the sexual in his relationship with Claire, tying her up using medical tubing and clamps, with her moaning, “doctor,” instead of his name. The body horror of Dead Ringers is intrinsically tied to the fear and horrors of modern, well at least 1980s, medicine.
Dead Ringers also presents a case for the body horror of twins and having an exact replica of one’s self. In fact, having a twin could be considered a ‘mutation’. Twins blur the lines between who is who, particularly with identical twins. They are uncanny, confusing, and off-putting. The Mantle twins in particular are uncanny, swapping identities constantly to trick and deceive their patients. These patients often become their lovers, an ethical dilemma briefly addressed in the film. Ultimately, the twins abuse their mutated biology for their own sexual benefit, something Claire eventually discovers.
Jeremy Irons’ performance as the Mantle twins is central to the success of Dead Ringers. He’s able to create two very distinct characters, with Elliot as the suave, charismatic twin and Beverly as the meek, shy twin. I’m in awe with how he is able to interact with himself and make it so believable. He’s also able to blur the lines between who is who, creating a careful confusion as Beverly starts to lose his grip on reality.
But Irons’ isn’t the only performance that holds up Dead Ringers. Genevieve Bujold as Claire is another piece to this strange puzzle. Claire is an actress who visits their practice due to her inability to conceive a baby. They discover that Claire’s uterus has three chambers, making it impossible for her to ever get pregnant, and also making her a target for Beverly’s obsession. She is delicate yet strong, needy yet independent; she is a nuanced woman who falls trap to the Mantle twins’ game. The issue with her character is that she is merely an object for Beverly’s development, a woman to cause him anguish and turmoil. The film tends to either focus on her relationship with Beverly or her infertility. Her sexuality and ability to reproduce are at the film’s forefront. While Bujold’s performance is captivating, the character of Claire is frustrating.
When it comes down to it, obsession is the core of Dead Ringers, whether it is with a woman, a vagina, or a twin brother. Without an object of obsession, Beverly is lost and thus invents things to become obsessed with. He moves from Elliot to Claire to creating his own archaic gynecological instruments to examine ‘mutant’ women. It’s as if he wants to get closer to the womb, moving from his womb mate to finding new ways to access the literal womb. His obsession leads to drug addiction and a complete regression to a childlike state. He cannot function without an object to fixate on.
“ Obsession is the core of Dead Ringers.”
Dead Ringers culminates in a haunting ending will stick with me for a long time. As Beverly awakens from a drug-induced stupor, he whispers in a childlike voice, “Ellie.” The room he’s in was once an examination room at their practice. But now it is covered in trash, candles, and bloody needles. This once-pristine altar to gynecological medicine has been reduced to a trash-filled den. He has fully regressed to a childlike state, where he calls for his ‘parent’, searching for him, even though Ellie is right there, torn open. This puzzling film comes to a tragic end as an obsession ultimately culminates in murder.
Again, Dead Ringers is a different kind of Cronenberg film, one that is more meditative and cerebral rather than focusing on tearing open bodies. It focuses on the horrific potential of modern medicine, the uncanniness of being twins, and the destructive nature of obsession. It has also made me extremely cautious of twins (sorry to all the twins out there). Dead Ringers is weird, uncomfortable, and a testament to Cronenberg’s ability to make body horror into something more thoughtful. Dead Ringers is a deeply unsettling, psychosexual ride that is necessary viewing for anyone looking for a different perspective on the concept of body horror.