A terrifying romance. A transcendental horror film. A gruelling, torturous experience. An uplifting look at the power of love, both romantic and fraternal. Dead Ringers is somehow all of these things at once, and yet even more. It feels as though it was gouged into existence rather than written, and with every single watch and rewatch buries itself deeper into the soul of the viewer. It is a film about nature vs. nurture; about ways the physical intertwines with the emotional; about nothing less than what is required to be human. Naked in its emotion, peerless in its execution, it is a true, unashamed masterpiece.
Based – albeit exceedingly loosely – on the real life story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, Dead Ringers focuses upon twin brothers Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), inspired gynaecologists but flawed, uncomfortable human beings struggling to assimilate into society. Their relationship is terrifying insular, and the two depend on each other more than either would possibly like to admit. Of the pair, Eliot is the more outgoing, seducing women left and right, and encouraging Beverly to impersonate him in order to sleep with some of his catches.
It is through the pair switching their identities that the film’s plot grinds into motion. Though Eliot is the one who first sleeps with charismatic movie star Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) whom he meets as a result of her desperate, ceaseless desire to have children, soon Beverly is pretending to be his brother, and a shaky, Freudian love triangle begins to develop.
Though Dead Ringers is so packed with subtext it would be dismissive to claim the film is centred around a single theme, love begins to increasingly play an important part in the proceedings. Not just romantic love, mind: it also explores fraternal longing, as the twin brothers begin to circle each other, growing more and more similar with each passing day, trading in their identities and ultimately questioning the very existence of personality.
The film bursts with brilliance, from Irons’ stunning double performance as Beverly and Eliot, a turn so awe-inspiring that one frequently forgets they are watching the same actor, to the poetic, visceral script. “I’ve often thought there should be beauty contests based on the insides of the body,” says Eliot a one point, a quintessential Cronenberg line that sticks with the viewer like a curse.
The body horror of the film’s last third is subtle, but no less striking, and an extended scene in a gynaecologist’s chair has the power to unsettle the stomach of even the most hardened horror viewer. It would be wrong, however, to imply that the ending of Dead Ringers is anything resembling a gorefest, and indeed in its last moments the film becomes haunting and tragic. Somehow, Cronenberg manages to juggle a myriad of disparate emotions and tones, and more than that, manages to have these contrasting emotions line up in time for the indelible final shot.
It’s a film unlike any other; a horror cum romance cum dark comedy cum drama cum tragedy that doesn’t so much span genres as it does set the very idea of genre ablaze. It’s an experience, more than a film; one that will stay with you for a long, long time.