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Film / Dead Ringers

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"There's nothing the matter with the instrument, it's the body. The woman's body is all wrong!"

"Separation can be a... terrifying thing."
Dr. Beverly Mantle

Dead Ringers is a 1988 horror drama film directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jeremy Irons.

It's a story about twin gynecologists, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, who run a brisk business treating infertile women. That, and they have a tendency of taking advantage of them, too. Being the more suave of the two, Elliot woos them, and when he's finished he pulls the old switcheroo and pawns the unsuspecting women off onto Beverly.

One such woman is the actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), who Beverly legitimately falls for, to the point of obsession. Unfortunately, Beverly is a jangled bundle of neuroses, and when Claire goes out of town to work on a film and Bev calls her hotel room only for a man to answer, Beverly jumps to the conclusion that she is cheating on him.

Cue descent into delusional hell, wherein Beverly begins performing unnecessary operations with custom gynecological tools on women who he believes have "mutant genitalia." When the effects of his declining mental health spill over into the brother's practice, the board of health suspends Beverly's license. Elliot, who had always been sensitive to his sibling's fragility, leaves his practice and his current sex partner to join Beverly, who has holed himself up in their apartment.

The twins then embark on a medical procedure to separate themselves for health reasons. Has it been mentioned that they aren't conjoined twins?

The film is set to be remade into a television series for Prime Video on April 21, 2023, with Rachel Weisz taking over the role(s) of Elliot and Beverly.

Not related to the British television and radio series Dead Ringers. Also not to be confused with Dead Ringer, an entirely different identical twin story starring Bette Davis.

This film operates on the following tropes:

  • Acting Your Intellectual Age: The twins as children, who act almost nothing like children at all and much more like little scientists.
  • Addled Addict: Beverly's drug use leads to erratic behavior, delusions, and visibly deteriorating physical health.
  • Always Identical Twins: Beverly and Elliot are identical twins, played by the same actor, Jeremy Irons.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: At the end, Beverly kills his brother with surgical tools at the latter's request in a drug-fueled stupor. He doesn't outlive his brother for long, as he simply can't bear to live without him and instead chooses to die with Elliot.
  • Bed Trick: Elliot seduces women, then hands them over to Beverly once he's tired of them, without the women knowing they're sleeping with two different men.
  • Berserk Button: Don't call attention to the fact that Beverly is usually a woman's name.
  • Body Horror: A Cronenberg staple.
    • The Nightmare Sequence.
    • The medical instruments.
    • A disturbingly subtle one for what's not shown is Beverly's diagnosis of Claire; the reason she can't get pregnant is because she has one uterus with three separate uterine compartments, each with its own cervix. When Beverly calls Claire at her hotel room while she's away working on a film and gets her (male) receptionist, he believes she's cheating on him — and tells him about her condition. Claire's actually a good sport about it. She's already accepted Beverly's neuroses and is less disturbed by the confidentiality breach than she is by her receptionist's reaction — he was a Flamboyant Gay before Beverly accused him of "fucking a mutant," which grossed him out beyond belief.
  • Canada, Eh?: Toronto is given as the setting for the majority of the film (with the exception of one scene near the beginning set in a university in America). It's a fairly realistic depiction without any stereotypes. Also Geneviève Bujold is actually French-Canadian, and while it is not explicitly stated whether her character Claire is as well, her last name (Niveau) and accent would suggest that to be the case.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Beverly falls from his bed after a Nightmare Sequence where Claire separates him from his brother Elliot by chewing through the connective tissue.
  • Chained Heat: Appropriately enough, Claire's character in a movie she's rehearsing for is in this situation.
  • Child Prodigy: Bev and Ellie as kids are already extremely knowledgeable about sex, reproduction, evolution, and anatomy.
  • Cow Tools: Beverly's custom-made gynecological instruments are shown on display, and they are quite nasty looking, but (thankfully) their utility is never made explicit.
  • Daydream Surprise: Beverly is sleeping with Claire. Elliot is there next to the bed, and Claire suggests to separate Beverly from Elliot. Then she starts biting a sort of umbilical cord-like growth that links the twins together. Cut to Beverly waking up; this was just a nightmare.
  • Descent into Addiction: After meeting Claire, Beverly becomes addicted to meds. His brother finally follows suit.
  • Driven to Suicide: Beverly kills himself in the end.
  • Dr. Jerk: Both brothers take turns at this. Elliott is shown as contemptuous and dismissive towards his patients, and Beverly later becomes furious with a patient who dares to suggest his examination is hurting her.
  • Evil Twin: Zig zagged. In the beginning, Elliot is presented as a smooth and charming but totally sociopathic jerkass, while Beverly seems to be a rather Nice Guy in contrast with his brother (even if using a Bed Trick is clearly not something nice). In the end, Beverly becomes a Mad Doctor and Elliot is the more sensible and less dangerous of the two.
  • Foreshadowing: The gynecological instrument that Beverly designs when he is still an undergraduate student foreshadows the instruments that he designs in the end.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: Ellie and Bev as kids, who know far more about adult topics than anyone would expect from children, and it's played for laughs when they ask another young girl quite baldly if she'd be interested in having sex with them.
  • Gender-Blender Name:
    • Claire points out that Beverly is considered a feminine name.
    • Beverly calls his brother by a feminine-sounding nickname: "Ellie."
    • While Claire is more common as a woman's name, it can be a male name as well (Clare).
  • I Was Told There Would Be Cake: Perhaps surprisingly, the eating of a delicious cake is an integral part to The Climax.
  • Identical Twin ID Tags: As the story progresses, Beverly and Elliot's personalities diverge due to one of the twins' advancing mental instability. This is reflected in their appearance, with Elliot maintaining a healthy, well-tanned look while Beverly develops bags under his eyes, a sickly pallor, and a nervous twitch. Even in earlier parts of the story, Beverly is sometimes recognizable by his stooped posture, something Elliot never exhibits.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: The Mantle twins treat infertile women who want to conceive. Claire is one of them.
  • Little Professor Dialog: The twins as kids speak far more scientifically than most children that age.
  • Mad Doctor: Beverly, after his mental decline.
  • Manly Man and Sensitive Guy: Elliott is suave, seduces women easily, and not a little hard-hearted towards everyone but his brother. Beverly is shy, awkward, and cries easily. However, the roles get more muddied as the movie goes on.
  • Market-Based Title: The original name of the film was Twins, but it had to be changed thanks to the Schwarzenegger/DeVito film coming out first.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: In the prologue, the Mantle brothers are young boys who already discuss about sex and gynecology.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Beverly thinks that Claire is cheating on him because a male coworker answers a phone call to her hotel room. She was just having a professional meeting in her room.
  • Nailed to the Wagon: When Beverly's Addled Addict tendencies start to threaten Elliot's career, Elliot locks him away to detox in private.
  • Nightmare Sequence: There's one in the middle of the film and it is pretty...disturbing. Beverly is sleeping with Claire. Elliot appears next to the bed and Claire suggests to separate Beverly from Elliot. Then she pulls the covers back to reveal Bev and Ellie are connected by a fleshy growth between their stomachs, and Claire starts ripping it off with her teeth.
  • Non-Nude Bathing: Toward the end of the movie, Beverly comes across Elliot in the midst of his own breakdown, sitting in the shower, fully clothed.
  • Ping Pong Naïveté: The twins as children know an awful lot about sex, reproduction, evolution, and anatomy, and yet know nothing of social boundaries and even have some of their notions about sexual evolution wrong. They think if humans were an underwater creature we wouldn't have sex and instead lay eggs for males to fertilize like fish do, but humans are mammals, and underwater mammals like dolphins and whales do have sex.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Elliot is smooth and a ladykiller while Beverly is a Shrinking Violet. They are so identical that the only way Beverly can have sex is for Elliot to seduce the woman then substitute Bev for himself at the very last moment in the bedroom.
  • Quick Nip: All three of the central characters pop pills at various points in the narrative. Of particular note is a scene of Elliot, as he waits for an elevator, coolly and systematically dipping into an almost comically long series of prescription bottles he keeps in his pockets.
  • Really Gets Around: Claire says that she does everything she can to get pregnant, like being extremely promiscuous.
  • Sanity Slippage: Because of his addiction to meds, his insecurity, and his difficulty to live independently from his brother, Beverly becomes increasingly insane. He begins seeing genital mutations in his patients that do not actually have any. The madness spreads to Elliot via twin osmosis. This leads to them using a sort of strangely designed scalpel to perform a "separation procedure", AKA a murder-suicide.
  • Sibling Triangle: Claire has a relationship with both Beverly and Elliot. She is not aware of it, since her lovers are identical twins and Elliot pretends to be Beverly when he meets her.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To the film Cronenberg made immediately before this, The Fly (1986). Both are adapted from written works. Each is a Psychological Thriller Tragedy with only a few significant characters in which a man's jealous love for a woman inadvertently sends him into Sanity Slippage. Both involve extensive special effects and a lead actor seriously committed to their performance on physical and mental levels. But where The Fly is a science fiction film involving a transformation into both a Half-Human Hybrid and Mad Scientist with extreme amounts of onscreen Body Horror, this is a more realistic story of someone who becomes a Mad Doctor and Body Horror is more suggested than shown (with only one exception in a nightmare sequence). Where The Fly involves two entities (the scientist and a housefly) merging into one with the special effects turning Jeff Goldblum into that creature, this involves two entities trying to separate themselves — the twin doctors — with special effects allowing Jeremy Irons to play both. The visuals, acting, and tone are icy and chic here, whereas The Fly is warmer and dowdier. Whereas The Fly involves a man going through an external, physical transformation into a monster, Dead Ringers involves a man going through an internal, psychological transformation into a monster, and each ends up with an apartment full of trash and half-eaten food as an environmental sign of their Sanity Slippage. The trailer actually positioned it as this trope in its narration (and used Recycled Trailer Music from its precursor): "From David Cronenberg, who in The Fly made the fantastic, David Cronenberg makes reality the ultimate fantasy."
  • Together in Death: A particularly wrenching example. When the twins reach the nadir of their breakdown, they perform a "surgery" where Beverly effectively eviscerates Elliot. After he realizes what he's done, Beverly makes one final, abortive attempt to connect with his new paramour. He instead decides to join Elliot in death, cradling his brother's body as he dies.
  • Trash of the Titans: The twins' private hospital is full of trash in the end, because they have become insane.
  • Troubled Fetal Position: Beverly does the "rocking back and forth" variation at one point.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour: The film begins with a flashback to Elliot and Beverly as 9-year-old children, discussing the evolutionary basis for sexual reproduction in humans. It works as an Establishing Character Moment for how connected Elliot and Beverly are to one another yet completely at odds with the rest of society and culminates in one of the few funny moments in the film:
    Raffaella: Are you kidding?! Fuck off, you freaks! I'm telling my father you talk dirty. Besides, I know for a fact you don't even know what a fuck is. *storms off*
    Elliot: They're so different from us. And all because we don't live under water.
  • Twincest: The interactions and dependency of the brothers seem to have this sort of subtext, sharing details about their sex lives as if comparing homework. Truth in Television in that many twins are emotionally and physically intimate in ways disturbing to the untwinned, but the brothers take it well beyond that, especially on Elliot's end, like when he tries to initiate a threesome with Beverly and gets protective and takes over when his brother needs CPR.
  • Twin Switch: The Mantle twins do it regularly with the women they date. As far as Claire is concerned, she first meets Beverly during a consultation, then she has a date with Elliot and has sex with him. Her next date is with Beverly who has sex with her too...and Claire thinks that she is always with the same person. She does not even know that Beverly has a twin brother.
  • Twin Threesome Fantasy:
    • Elliot orders up an evening of "entertainment" with a pair of high-class twin hookers called Coral and Mimsy. Taking it even further, he requests that one of them call him by his own name, and the other call him by his brother's name...
    • In a later scene, Elliot's girlfriend tries to initiate a threesome with him and Beverly. Elliot seems totally into it, but Beverly is way too uncomfortable.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Cronenberg based the film on the deaths of Stewart and Cyril Marcus. However, the Marcus twins were "just" a pair of gynecologists who shared a practice, an apartment, a drug addiction, and were both found in said apartment some time after they died of withdrawal, resulting in them looking like rotten beef jerky - and no one really knows what the hell actually happened. Cronenberg, being Cronenberg, decided that all of this wasn't creepy enough...
  • Wardrobe Flaw of Characterization: In the scene where a drunken Beverly embarrasses Elliot at an awards ceremony, look at the ties. Elliot is wearing a perfectly-tied bow tie; Beverly, as though to highlight his ineffectualness, is wearing a clip-on.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Elliot and Beverly as kids, as they discuss evolution, sex, anatomy, and reproduction.