Seeing A Stolen Life yesterday left me hungry for some more creepy twin films, and decided to go directly to one of the creepiest ever made.
I saw Dead Ringers not too long after it was first released, probably on rental video. There is one thing that has changed since I saw it the last time—the internet. This time around I was able to find out that that David Cronenberg based this dark tale on the true story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, identical twin gynecologists who died together of barbiturate withdrawal in a squalid Manhattan penthouse. According to an article in the New York Times, many of the events are fictionalized, but some of the more shocking bits, such as one of the doctors, in a drug-induced haze, snatching an anesthesia mask away from a patient in the midst of surgery, are taken directly from the story of the Marcus twins. Even if it is fictionalized, just knowing that there is some truth behind the story makes it all the more unsettling to watch.
Cronenberg departed from his more straightforward, grotesque horror films such as Rabid and The Fly to create a more psychological study. The director called it “a departure, as it is perceived as a so-called realistic drama, while my other films have tended to be classified as horror or science fiction. It would be a mistake for people to think of this as a horror film. It simply isn’t.” The production design does a lot to establish the dense atmosphere which becomes heavier and heavier as the twins spiral out of control. Most scenes take place at night and the screen is painted almost entirely in red and blue, symbolizing the different characters of the two brothers as they grow further and further apart. The highly-stylized operating theater, with dramatic lighting and a surgical staff robed in in crimson red would highly unlikely even in a private clinic, but looks great in the film. The most Cronenbergian moment is a dream sequence in which one twin dreams that he is attached to his brother by a repulsive, pulsating band of flesh which the woman that has come between bites through it. While this is grotesque, it is clearly symbolic and serves the story.
Of course the most enjoyable thing about the film is Jeremy Irons’ performance. In his commentary on the DVD, he mentions that Robert De Niro passed on the role because he was not comfortable with the idea of playing gynecologists and William Hurt turned it down because “it is hard enough to play one role.” Although it is a bit confusing as to why Irons, playing Canadian characters, has such a British accent, he is really perfect for the role, both to play gynecologists and to play two roles. At first, Irons approached the challenge of playing two roles like a method actor. He had two separate dressing rooms and two separate wardrobes which he would use depending on which character he was playing at the time. Soon he realized that “the whole point of the story is you should sometimes be confused as to which is which,” after which he moved to a single dressing room and muddled the wardrobes together, and found an “internal way” to play each character differently, to give them “different energy points,” which gave them slightly different appearances. Reportedly, he stood on the balls of his feet when playing one twin and on his heels when playing the other. The momentum of the movie comes from being able to watch Irons as he comes undone as the more fragile Beverly while the more in-control Elliot remains arrogant and conceited for a while before following his brother in his downward spiral.