When people accuse David Cronenberg’s work of being “cold” or “clinical,” I suspect the movie they’re really talking about is his 1988 psychological thriller, Dead Ringers. It is a movie about surgeons, so of course it’s clinical. It is photographed with special cameras and carefully choreographed movements that require precision. It is a film about two men who share an unspoken bond and who keep all of their emotions under wraps. Of course it feels cold. But it is also a movie in which a woman tears into the flesh connecting conjoined twins with her teeth. There’s no mistaking it for anything but a David Cronenberg movie.
Jeremy Irons plays Beverly and Elliot Mantle, twin gynecologists who run their own highly successful and experimental clinic. Despite their deep connection, the brothers are different: Elliot is suave and confident, while Beverly is shy and frightened. When they meet Claire (played by Geneviève Bujold), an actress with a unique fertility problem, their world is thrown into chaos: Beverly falls in love for what seems like the first time and Elliot begins to play mind games. As the three-way relationship wreaks havoc on the Mantles, drug addiction and depression settle in and threaten to destroy everything they have—even each other.
Coming after Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly (still his best film, as far as I’m concerned), Dead Ringers finds the director at the peak of his powers. Having worked through some of his shocking and transgressive borefests earlier in his career, the director began transitioning around 1983’s The Dead Zone to more conventionally adult drama (not that his early films were immature, nor his later work conventional, but just that mainstream adult audiences could handle The Dead Zone and The Fly much more readily than they could The Brood or Rabid).
There are signs of the old Cronenberg everywhere, whether it’s in the glimpses of body horror or the nightmarish medical instruments seen on the operating table at the Mantle Clinic, but the director’s approach here is much more cerebral and less visceral than in his pre-Dead Zone work. Like the Mantles, Cronenberg possesses a fascination with human anatomy and behavior, and also like the Mantles, he appears to study it at a remove.
Of course, the film doesn’t work without the performance of Jeremy Irons at its center. Using specially designed motion control cameras to seamlessly place Irons opposite himself in a single shot, Dead Ringers asks the actor to give not just two but four distinct performances: Beverly and Elliot before their respective breakdowns and after, when they have essentially become different people under the influence of drugs, depression, and madness.
Without using any cheap makeup effects, major vocal affectations, or even obvious hair and costume differences, Irons creates two very different human beings on sight alone. While he’s always been a subdued, more internal actor, Irons turns those qualities against his characters, creating two men who try to function in society but who can only really ever belong with one another. He’s supported beautifully by Bujold, whose character and performance could have been steamrolled by Irons, but who instead creates someone who is smart, secure and, will not allow herself to be manipulated by the Mantle brothers.
Previously available on DVD as part of The Criterion Collection, Dead Ringers now comes to Blu-ray in a two-disc special edition courtesy of Scream Factory. Disc one contains the movie from what I think is an existing 1080p HD transfer, framed in 1.78:1 widescreen, while the second disc contains a new 2K scan and is framed in what is advertised as Cronenberg’s “preferred” 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Of the two options, I prefer the new scan on the second disc; while it’s softer than the 1.78:1 transfer (which looks as though it has undergone some digital enhancements), the color palette is more naturalistic and the overall appearance more film-like. Other viewers may like the first version, which is certainly sharper and carries more of a cold blue tint, so it’s nice that, like their recent release of Black Christmas, Scream Factory has seen fit to include both options.
The first disc (the 1.78:1 version) carries only a pair of commentaries as far as bonus features are concerned: one previously released track with actor Jeremy Irons and a new track with author and Cronenberg scholar William Beard, who spends a good amount of time talking about Dead Ringers, but also places it within the context of Cronenberg’s overall body of work.
The majority of the supplements are reserved for the second disc, on which there are new interviews with actors Stephen Lack and Heidi von Palleske, special effects designer Gordon Smith, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, plus archival interviews with Cronenberg, Jeremy Irons, screenwriter Norman Snider, and producer Marc Boyman. Rounding out the bonus features is an archival behind-the-scenes featurette and the original trailer. Unfortunately, none of the very cool bonus features that originally appeared on Criterion’s DVD have been licensed for this Blu-ray, meaning some of you (me) will have to hang on to that version even with the upgrade.
While I don’t consider Dead Ringers Cronenberg’s best movie nor my favorite of his works, it still ranks near the top and is an essential part of his filmography. The motion control “twinning” effects are first-rate for the period, Jeremy Irons’ dual performance is an acting masterpiece, and the movie combines so many of the director’s obsessions. It’s a cold film, but not a dispassionate one—sometimes horrifying, always fascinating. It’s another great film from a director who has made a lot of great films.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4/5