Dead Ringers (1988) Review

Dead Ringers (1988) Review

Dead Ringers (1988)
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenwriters: David Cronenberg, Norman Snider
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold, Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas, Stephen Lack, Nick Nichols, Damir Andrei, Miriam Newhouse, David Hughes, Richard W. Farrell, Jonathan Haley, Nicholas Haley

If anything, David Cronenberg’s 1988 psychological horror Dead Ringers feels slightly underappreciated in terms of the influence it has had on a very particular kind of genre movie. This is a film ripe for psychoanalysis, transgressing as it does numerous taboos and venturing into the darkest and most twisted corners of the human soul. Cronenberg’s film likely inspired similar stylishly shocking fare across the decades ranging from Julia Ducournau’s Titane to his son Brandon’s work such as Antiviral and even now it continues to shock and to intrigue. 

Brilliant gynaecologist twins Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) begin a rapid downward spiral, losing their grip on reality as Beverly falls in love with famous actress Claire (Geneviève Bujold) and Elliot becomes fixated with “re-synchronising” with his brother, both becoming obsessed with fixing reproductive mutations in complete disregard of medical codes of ethics and practice.

Proper title sequences have fallen out of fashion in recent years, which is a shame because they are a great way to economically set the tone and atmosphere of your movie from the off. Renaissance-era medical drawings against a stark red background introduce us to the world of Dead Ringers, along with a very beautiful and atmospheric score from Howard Shore for such a morally ugly film.

How different can identical men be? As Claire spots straight away upon meeting them both: “Beverly’s the sweet one and you’re the shit”.  We follow two men sharing one life, twins masquerading as each other at opportune moments to make the most of their given strengths, one working hard at their clinic and diligently researching papers and the other acting as the charismatic face of their enterprise. This device is deployed even more creatively in the 2023 TV miniseries remake ‘Dead Ringers’ starring Rachel Weisz, with one twin texting the other during their daily rounds at the hospital that they need to “switch”, prompting a slickly rehearsed handover.

Jeremy Irons is frankly uncanny in how easily he can differentiate two physically identical men and make them empathetic, repulsive, tragic and/or monstrous from moment to moment. Even in the film’s final act when both Mantle brothers have gone off the deep end and become much closer personality-wise, the role they fulfil in their relationship and which side of the frame they occupy leaves you in no doubt. The problems truly begin when Bev, perhaps for the first time in his life, decides not to share with Elliot what exactly he gets up to with Claire, “I don’t want to tell you about it. I want to keep it for myself”, upsetting their equilibrium and their power balance. 

As well as adapting the novel “Twins” by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, this story has a certain amount of inspiration in the real world. Stewart and Cyril Marcus were twin gynaecologists working in New York from the 1950s through to their untimely and mysterious deaths in 1975. Like the Mantle Brothers, they faced a battle with addiction and mental illness. This isn’t their story, but it’s not not their story, either. 

There’s nothing wrong with a polyamorous relationship, but it requires consent from all parties and pretending to be your own brother to trick your desired partner is pretty reprehensible. Hollywood in the 1980s or 90s might have come up with a rom-com with a similar premise in this era and left the premise unremarked upon, but Cronenberg rightly uses it as one track of his disturbing thriller. 

An eerie dream sequence and fairly graphic final couple of scenes aside, this film has less body horror than some of Cronenberg’s more extreme films like The Brood or The Fly, but it still features surgical equipment being used in sex and a blurring of the lines between pleasure, pain, medicine and mutilation. Often it is more the implication of how far the brothers are prepared to go to achieve their misguided aims than what we actually see that sends a chill down your spine. The brothers even come up with their own depraved contraptions that look more like torture devices than medical tools to solve a problem that may well be a delusion shared between them: “There’s nothing the matter with the instrument, it’s the body!”

There’s definitely something of the Gothic about this story; thematically, tonally and visually. The vivid scarlet surgical gowns look like they’re straight out of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death. Peter Suschitzky’s (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) cinematography tends to favour high-contrast lighting and a cold, clinical aesthetic to better enhance the emotional and moral disconnect of the brothers’ lived experience as they lose themselves to obsession and madness. 

Cronenberg comes back to the same themes and story ideas time after time, with the line “I often thought there should be beauty contests for the inside of the body” inspiring a key element in Crimes of the Future’s custom organs and recreational surgery. As is often the case with his films, he feels slightly overwhelmed by the number of ideas he is trying to unpack in two hours, and every character who isn’t a Mantle twin or Claire feels a bit underserved by the material, but as a story tapping into the unconscious thoughts of fractured minds it’s a stand-out.

David Cronenberg’s films have been showier, more surreal and more gross-out experiences elsewhere, but Dead Ringers remains one of his richest and most layered films. You might find it hard to connect on an emotional level with the Mantle twins, but Jeremy Irons’ finely modulated dual performance is one for the ages. When paired with Cronenberg’s unmistakable sense of style, Dead Ringers makes for one of the most beautiful to look at and yet deeply uncomfortable viewing experiences around.

Score: 21/24

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Scroll to Top