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.