Time for another installment of Overlooked Awesomeness, in which we examine a piece of pop culture that seems (to me, at least) to have been severely overlooked and/or underrated by fans. Today’s topic: Dead Ringers, an amazing, classic and severely fucked-up psychological horror movie from that much-beloved master of Nightmare Fuel, David Cronenberg. Very briefly, this is the story of two twin brothers (both played flawlessly by Jeremy Irons) who are both brilliant doctors, and not just any doctors–gynecologists. (See boys, I told you this was a horror story!)
Cronenberg, of course, is well known for such sci-fi/horror classics as The Fly (1986) with Jeff Golblum, or Videodrome (1983) starring James Woods and of course 1981’s Scanners. I won’t try to argue that Cronenberg is the most versitle director in the world (although I do think he’s got a wider range than most of his movies suggest–Dead Ringers is actually a good example of that. We’ll get there, I promise), but you have to give the guy credit: the man knows exactly what he does well, and he does that better than most who have come before or since. He is also very unique in his approach, and has a way of putting his vision up on the screen that makes it nearly impossible to mistake for the work of anyone else. Cronenberg is often imitated due to his popularity, but he is (and, I suspect, never will be) duplicated. I’m not a fan of gore (or horror, for that matter) as a rule, but I can sit through (and even enjoy) a Cronenberg movie for a couple of reasons: first, the gore is rarely TOO much, or too over the top and is NEVER unnecessary to the story, the stories themselves are always very good and quite compelling, the characterizations are always stellar, and the kind of acting talent he attracts is second to none.
Dead Ringers is a fantastic illustration of all of these elements (although the gore and body horror is actually quite restrained, at least by Cronenberg standards, and replaced with a much stronger focus on psychological horror.) Let’s start by discussing talent: Jeremy. Fucking. Irons. Jeff Goldblum is awesome, no doubt. And James Woods is freaking fantastic, but also quite well known for doing off-beat and odd movies. Jeremy Irons is a super respected, London-Old Vic-trained actor who up til this point in his career had done classic British theatre (with an emphasis on Shakespeare) and period pieces like The Mission (fantastic movie, by the way–see it but for God’s sake bring at least three boxes of tissues), Brideshead Revisited and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Then Cronenberg shows up and asks him to play insane twin gynecologists. This movie (as Irons himself acknowledges) was quite the catalyst for his career; soon after he played in Reversal of Fortune (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar), The Lion King, Die Hard With A Vengeance, and Lolita. None of which would have been possible without this job.
And what a job Irons does, too. Not only is the portrayal of the Mantle twins nearly technically flawless (there are only one or two scenes where the use of a double or split screen is obvious), his acting is more than good enough to give each twin a very distinct and unique personality. Its always completely clear which of the twins is on screen (unless they’re deliberately engaging in subterfuge and you’re supposed to be confused, of course, in which case Irons does a brilliant job of making his portrayal unsettling and disconcerting.) It may have been his portrayal of Claus von Bulow from A Reversal of Fortune that got him an Oscar, but (as Irons himself acknowledges in his excellent audio commentary, which I highly suggest listening to after seeing the movie) that award was as much for this movie as it was for the other. Surely his performance here was many times more difficult, and just as excellent and subtle. It really is a crying shame that the Academy is so uptight they can’t acknowledge true excellence just because it comes in the form of an unsettling horror movie. Sigh.
Speaking of the movie itself…holy shit. Of all the movies I’ve talked about in this series so far, this is without a doubt the one that would be spoiled the most by giving too much away, so forgive me for being extra careful here. Suffice to say Irons plays the Mantle twins, Elliot and Beverly (yes, a guy named Beverly. It didn’t used to be that uncommon.) Both are brilliant doctors who focus their talents on the study and practice of gynecology. Elliot is very outgoing and quite good at the game of making the right friends and influencing the right people. Beverly, on the other hand, is quite introverted, far more content to spend his time reading and researching in their office or lab. Elliot is the elder (by a few minutes anyway), and makes it his personal business to look out for his (quite innocent) younger brother. This is quite understandable since the two of them share a very special–and as the movie goes on–quite disconcerting and eventually outright disturbing–bond. A woman ends up entering their lives, and upsets the delicate balance of the brothers’ relationship. Things spiral downwards for them from there, and end, as one might expect, not well at all.
And that’s all I’m going to say! Anything more would absolutely ruin it. In fact, I’m not even going to post the trailer as I usually do, because even that just gives away to darn much. Instead, I’ll leave you with this still from the movie, and a quote:
“Doctor…I think there’s something wrong with you…”
Now off with you to the video store! Go! (And once you do see it, or if you already have, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! I know I’m not the only one who loved this movie.)