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Blog Retrospectives

Specula-tion: A Twin’s Take on Dead Ringers

I am an identical twin. I weighed about three pounds at birth, my brother weighing five. Together, we constituted the birth weight of an average child. I was sickly, hemorrhaging in the brain and suffering with a heart murmur, so despite coming first in the birth order, I would not be home for another two weeks. The doctors found that some of my complications in birth came from malnutrition as a result of twin-to-twin transfusion: my brother was draining me of my nutrients. From that moment on, I was always a bit stunted, always weight class below him when we wrestled, always a few inches shorter, always a bit more sickly. We had times of resonance, freakishly speaking at the same time saying the same thing in debate tournaments, where we were partners, or accidentally dressing the same without meaning to. Despite those brief moments of overlap, though, we were always just off, similar, but not congruent.

Dead Ringers hyperbolizes these moments of symmetry and difference. Beverly and Elliot (both played to perfection by the lovely Jeremy Irons) embody this leading and lagging fraternity in a perverse thriller that you have to see to believe. It has all of Cronenberg’s most notable traits: body horror, fetishism, and an unparalleled mise-en-scène that draws you into the mutant worlds and pathological minds of the characters in the film. A bit uneven at times, slogging in its back half, the film is somewhat lower on the totem pole of David Cronenberg’s work, but it’s an alluring and upsetting watch to add to your October horror rotation.

The film opens with one of the best expository scenes I’ve ever seen. Over black, we see the time and location of the twins as young children, opening with them very scientifically discussing sex. Fish have it differently because they live underwater, one explains to the other, the other preferring it that way as you don’t have to touch another person to do it. The conversation is quite clinical, unsettling out of the mouths of babes, but plainly a mark of their precocity more than anything else. Not a moment later do the twins collude: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” It’s something I’ve said to my own twin many times, our adolescence spent playing tricks on our teachers by pretending to be the other in class. Of course, what follows is decidedly less innocuous, the twins approaching a girl their age and asking her to have sex with them both in their bathtub as “an experiment.” She understandably responds in shock and threatens to tell her father, but not before responding with a street-smart that contrasts their veneer of scholarly interest: “Fuck off you freaks… Besides, I know for a fact you don’t even know what fuck is!” The whole sequence is less than three minutes but clearly establishes our characters’ relationship with each other, aptitude for all things biological, the perverse way in which they use it.

The film quickly hits its stride with the two precocious scientists subbing in for each other to maximize the use of their time, this questionable act becoming especially upsetting when used for its sexual component as Elliot passes women off to the meek Beverly. An archetypal virgin and Chad meme if there ever was one, the contours of their difference begin here, the film presenting Beverly in bookish glasses and non-threatening sweater/button-down combinations that starkly contrast Elliot’s proto-Patrick Bateman suits (Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s respective wardrobes in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal certainly find touchstones here). The film’s unsettling atmosphere continues pretty constantly for a while until Beverly’s depressive state sees him go the way of Sheriff Truman in season two of Twin Peaks, killing the film’s momentum for a few beats, but setting up the fascinating disequilibrium between the twins that ushers in the third act. Stay for Irons’ unsettling performance(s), some nightmarish surgical garb that resembles some kind of occult ritual more than actual medical procedures, and one of Cronenberg’s purest images of fetishism in the form of Beverly’s made-to-measure, unsettling gynecological tools, a simple use of a phallic image to respond in kind for Beverly’s sense of emasculation and castration fears.

The film’s minor pacing problems aside, it’s really a treat. It’s perversion manifested in a cinematic space, the grotesque unconscious made visible through a dream screen that uses the horror/thriller genre’s conventions to discuss taboo topics, from quasi-incestuous pairings to medical fetishism. Put simply, the vibes are off, and the film offers a hole in the wall that puts on display all kinds of nasty thoughts. The film is at once erotic and contemptible, using visual spectacle in the mise-en-scène and striking imagery to seduce while the narrative’s sexual neuroses and unhealthy twin dynamic repulse. Forget about The Shining or Sisters for your twinsploitation horror this October; Dead Ringers doubles down on the subject with a clarity of perspective that milks the image of identical twins for all its strangeness while still giving it the gravity it deserves.

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Blog Hot Takes

Hot Take – Horror Cinema

I’m not very good at writing about things that are terrifying. My writing style and general outlook on life tend to naturally carry me away from that, into more flowery and romantic things. I only know that I’m bad at it because as I was beginning to write this piece, I tried to establish some bleak and dreary tone about the state of society as it relates to Halloween and Horror cinema, and I found myself just dumping vaguely creepy platitudes about the way people see the holiday, and it was all goofy and shitty and dumb.

I think this kinda happens to encapsulate the exact phenomenon I find so puzzling about the way Halloween works. I must disclaim that October is absolutely my favorite month of the year. It feels like life is happening, the weather is perfect, everybody is together celebrating the season. October in Athens is particularly special, although it’s pretty hard to pin down why. Everybody just kinda is in on whatever we all get to share this month, and it’s wonderful. That being said, every year without fail people hype October to oblivion. “Spooky season is coming! Spoopy!” Everybody chants this stuff almost ritualistically in September, posting that same gif of that person in those black tights dancing with that Jack O’ Lantern on their head. As the month continues, everyone does the costume parties, goes to the pumpkin patches, eats the pumpkin stuff, yada yada.

People watch the same horror movies, too. People watch the schlock, the classics, and the contemporary stuff. This is not a bad thing, and I’m not downplaying horror films in the slightest. There are lots of truly wonderful horror films, and some of them are quite scary, but nevertheless I have always found it a bit puzzling. You settle in, pop your popcorn, surround yourself with the people you care about (or at the very least the people that you’re interested in) and then you watch the scary stuff.

This glib approach to it all comes with several clarifications, naturally. I am not saying here that Halloween is stupid, and horror films are stupid, and it’s all dumb and not even real! And I’m better than you because I know that! I’m not saying that, although I kinda felt like I had to start off the essay by making it seem like I was saying that because it’s kinda fun to be inflammatory sometimes. However, I am by no means placing myself above the holiday celebrations that come with Halloween; that’s haughty and elitist. I love all the October stuff and Halloween stuff as much as the next person. The fact remains, though that when people enter the Halloween season, they do the same things. They perform the same rituals, revel in the same activities, watch the same films, and share the same togetherness. And they always will. This is a good thing, and a happy, wonderful thing. October is a lovely time of year, and it’s probably my favorite.

But, the fact of the matter is that all this, all these activities and especially all these films…it’s kinda all…..the same.

Horror film, and the spectatorship henceforth, exists with this same flavor of…sameness. Horror is arguably the foremost example of true genre, and thus it arguably is the foremost example of a cinema that just chugs through the same things. Any horrifying film, with variation, prances dramatically along the same formulaic illusion: that it’s all genuinely horrifying, and these real terrors should haunt us all the time forever. This guides me to the central question that I want to posit, all of these things being kept in mind:

How is all of this sameness considered scary at all?

When I think about things that are truly horrifying, shocking, and terrifying, I almost always find myself naturally tracking to the unknown. The fear of losing all this life, the fear of some safety or peace being corrupted by some human, specter or force that is far more formidable than anything I’ll ever have at my disposal….the terror of whatever that thing is that no human has ever or can ever understand…….THAT’S the truly horrifying stuff. Many horror films tap into this. General horror tropes give audiences glimpses and emulations. There’s the glance toward the shadowy black forest, a void expanse that seems to stretch into the furthest reaches of our subconscious while sitting directly in front of us, the ambient hum of a room or location that the audience clearly knows contains whatever darkest fears exist that we have yet to imagine. The genre tropes give us glimpses into that feeling. They provide insight. However (and this is the most crucial difference between what we as audience members have experienced as horror cinema and what actually constitutes a genuinely horrifying cinema) insight is only emulation when placed at the foot of genuine experience. Settling into a seat with popcorn and loved ones to watch a scary thing is not immersion into something fearful. It is immersion into one’s own safety. We watch horror films to recognize how safe we are. What about these sitting around and watching a movie that you know is going to end, that you know was filmed in a studio, is ever going to generate true terror? (Aside: Blair Witch is arguably the only mainstream exception that truly challenges this; a film that convinces millions of its authenticity succeeds in approaching true horror. The Exorcist gets kinda close, but that’s just because of all that Christian rabblerousing.)

If true horror only comes with being confronted by things that truly threaten our sense of safety, whether that be emotional or physical, than I will argue that the only truly horrifying cinema is cinema that is unconcerned with convincing the audience that they are scared. Cinema that transcends the necessity to provide the audience with the expected shocks and scares, opting instead to reach into abstraction to extract some deeply seeded and ravenous part of the unsettled soul….that is where only the most authentic horror lies.

Black Ice, one of the most popular films in Stan Brakhage’s 1990s silent series created entirely with paint on film stock, is inspired by a nasty fall on ice that Brakhage experienced in the late 80s. The fall resulted in injuries that required intensive eye surgery for the director, and he almost lost his vision as a result. The film is much like the rest of Brakhage’s films in this series: it consists of brief flickering images, all created by Brakhage’s brushstroke. The frames move so quickly that, in silence, the visual sensation of motion fades into one’s subconscious, and the flowing tones and shapes meld together and guide the viewer into a serene and subliminal state of dissociative reflection. Black Ice is different from the rest of his filmography however, because the image performs in a dynamic language that is not present in any of his other films. The blobs and hues seem to shove themselves toward the audience, and the motion begins to convince the viewer that the colors and images on the screen are seeking to reach out and suck you in, so that you can be trapped with them inside their refractory vortex of frozen shade. I don’t want to suggest that horror film must be directly related to some tangible, provable trauma in order to become convincing and/or authentic, but Black Ice’s elegant sense of unease communicates a lack of safety that is hard to find in any studio-made horror film. Gone is the sense of time or closure, gone are all concerns with character, resolution, outcome. There is only movement and darkness. Complete uncertainty, total alienation. Will I be trapped in this when it’s all over? THAT is a horror movie.

Toshio Matsumoto’s Atman functions within a similar structuralist belief system. A singular figure wearing a terrifying mask is positioned in the center of a field somewhere, and the camera appears to move in a circle around them. At the beginning of the film, the camera erupts into an overwhelming pattern, the camera rushing closer to the figure and backwards, around and around, flashing strobe patterns across the screen to the grating, disquieting sounds of shrill electronics. The motion is entirely unlike any that we find in our regular lives, and entirely unlike any that we find in horror cinema. It is aggressively uncomfortable, especially when the image in question is trained upon an imposing and terrifying figure. It confronts the audience with the most primal sense that an audience member can have: when will this be over? When will I finally get relief from this torment?

Halloween is all about the spooky things and the scary things, and everyone loves to watch a horror movie around this time of year. Halloween is about the togetherness that we share, and I would venture to say that most horror cinema, on social function alone, operates within this optimistic and unified framework. A horror film can hardly ever be horrifying, because inherent to the social framework of the genre is a sense of being with those that you love, in a time of year that you love. The only truly terrifying cinema is the cinema that forces us into things that we don’t understand, into an incongruent and incomprehensible place of association, uncertainty, and darkness. These movies are examples of that, and honestly, films like these are the only things that I personally think constitute genuinely horrifying cinema.

You can find these films on YouTube. Watch them with your friends and laugh and have a good time to completely prove me wrong and render this entire essay meaningless.