David Cronenberg is one of the few Western filmmakers to have carved out his own niche within a Hollywood system that is both intellectually bankrupt and box office driven. His films tirelessly span the gap between the avant-garde, edgy cinema of the 70s and the slick, huckster films of the '90s and '00s. Often mislabeled a horror film director, on account of his early films, Cronenberg is in fact a versatile non-genre craftsman: his pictures can sometimes resemble genre films but more often inhabit a gray netherworld between genres. From the parables of Shivers to the body obsession of The Fly, Cronenberg's cinema is the cinema of science. Not the science of progress and health, but the cold and remote science that boils humanity down to mere chemical reactions and molecular disturbances. And his most "scientific" film is undoubtedly the oddly recursive Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers is based on the true story of two twin gynecologists, Steven and Cyril Marcus, who frequently switched places with each other, both at work and in their private lives. With their lives spiraling out of control, the brothers committed suicide together in their Manhattan apartment. The 1977 novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, dramatized the case, and Cronenberg's film follows suit. Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons) are twin brothers, both are emotionally detached and both grow up to become gynecologists. When Elliot, the more sophisticated of the two, beds movie star Clair (Genevieve Bujold), he invites Beverly to share her with him. As Elliot explains, the experience of one brother has no meaning unless it's shared with the other. Things turn ugly when Bev falls for the actress.
Cronenberg paints a haunting picture with Dead Ringers. It is not a warm film, the characters feel cold and mechanical, even the colors seem bleached out. While Dead Ringers is not a "body horror" film, as Cronenberg's earlier pictures (Shivers, The Brood, The Fly) were, there is still a hint here of body revulsion. Scenes of surgery, in which the brother's drape themselves in blood red surgical gowns and use bizarre instruments that they've manufactured themselves hint at the horrors of Cronenberg's earlier works. (The new Criterion Collection DVD has a special documentary devoted to the design of these very memorable, organic instruments. A more streamlined disc from Warner Bros. is out now.) Irons is startlingly off-kilter, his performance a veritable textbook example of deranged if icy brilliance. The split screen effect by which the brothers were shown together was at the time daring and is expertly carried off. Today such special effects could easily be achieved using CGI or even on a home PC.
Dead Ringers -- the title was originally Gemini -- is really a film about one person, not two. Cronenberg packs the films with doubles, but they are almost always mirror images, or at least that's what they boil down to. Cronenberg doesn't go into details, psychological or otherwise, and it's up to the performers, the camera, and the audience to comprehend exactly what is happening. And Dead Ringers works because of this aloofness. What is most clear is that the Mantle brothers are slowly filtering down to become one person. Had Roger Corman made Dead Ringers, one might expect an effects-laden twist ending in which the two brothers actually combine, flesh to flesh, to become one being. Where this was realized physically in schlock horrors like The Manster and The Thing with Two Heads, Cronenberg only teases at such absurdities. The horror here is not of the loss of the body, or even the horror of the science of the body, it is the horror of the mind, of individual perception. Cronenberg paints in moral grays. His characters exist in a scientific blank wave arcade (had to throw a Faint reference in somewhere) where humanity is mere flesh and confusion. The gradual assimilation of their already limited personalities is more like a symptom of a congenital disease than a statement about existential malaise. The Mantle brothers -- the sir name chosen for various connotations, no doubt -- are ciphers for the monstrous nothingness that exists in a life lived with no individuality. They are monsters of the id. And monsters of the id thrive in the cold, sterile world of science without humanity (or humility).
Needless to say, you don't come away from Dead Ringers with a happy-go-lucky feeling, nor do you come away entirely sure of what you've seen. Reality, like the warped minds of the Mantle brothers, is wholly subjective, and the only thing that is clear, crystal clear, is that, in the words of the seminal post-punk band Shriekback, "evil is an exact science."