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The Criterion Collection presents
Dead Ringers (1988)

"My brother's research is the basis of my career. I need him. Besides, the truth is, nobody can tell us apart. We are perceived as one person. If Bev goes down the tubes, I go with him. I've got to get him back."
- Elliott (Jeremy Irons)

Review By: Justin Stephen   
Published: October 12, 2000

Stars: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold
Other Stars: Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas, Stephen Lack
Director: David Cronenberg

Manufacturer: Nimbus
MPAA Rating: R for (Violence, nudity, strong sexual content, and drug use)
Run Time: 01h:55m:36s
Release Date: October 14, 1998
UPC: 715515009249
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Very few people would ever accuse Canadian director David Cronenberg of being a mainstream filmmaker. Beginning with his gore-laden vampiresque films in the 1970s (Shivers, Rabid), through his gruesome remake of <The Fly and bizarre adaptation of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, to Crash (his 1996 cinematic study of people who are sexually aroused by car accidents), Cronenberg has consistently pushed the envelope of all things macabre, bizarre, and disturbing. Somewhat unusual among his films—as it contains no chimerical or supernatural elements—Dead Ringers is widely considered to be one of Cronenberg's best to date.

Elliott and Beverly Mantle are identical twins. Fascinated by the science of reproduction from an early age, they attended medical school together where they achieved notoriety for the invention of a type of surgical retractor, and eventually establish a successful gynecological clinic in Toronto, specializing in female fertility. Each has strengths and weaknesses that compliment the other. Elliott is debonair, gregarious, and socially confident. A lover of fine clothes and furnishings, he is also a womanizer and a playboy. Beverly, on the other hand, is introverted and reclusive, dedicated to his work in their clinic and his research. Despite their significant personality differences, Beverly and Elliott are remarkably close, even for twins. They work together and live together and rely on one another greatly. Bev's research and diligence in their clinic affords Elliott the opportunity to do what he enjoys most: traveling, lecturing and garnering accolades. Elliott, in turn, sees to it that his brother gets out of the house and meets women, often by romancing them himself first and then passing them on to Bev, who just pretends to be Elliott (or vice versa). As Elliott reminds Bev early in the film, "If we didn't share women, you'd still be a virgin."

Enter famous actress Claire Niveau (Bujold). How the twins each react to her visit to their clinic is indicative of their differing outlooks on life. Beverly, who first examines her, is seemingly oblivious to her fame, instead fascinated by her exceptionally rare condition (she is a trifurcate, with three cervices leading into her uterus). Elliott, on the other hand, doesn't share his brother's medical fascination. He is instead enamored by her celebrity, and returns to the examination room pretending to be Beverly. In almost no time at all he has successfully seduced the free-spirited and promiscuous actress. In typical fashion, he "gives" her to his brother so that he may share in the conquest. Things are different this time, however. Beverly soon begins to fall in love with her and, like Claire, begins to abuse pharmaceuticals. His drug use soon escalates into full-scale addiction and, being a doctor with his own prescription pad, feeding his addiction is elementary. The drug use itself soon begins taking a serious toll on Beverly's—and by association Elliott's—professional life. Beverly resists ferociously Elliott's assertions that they "drop her." More troubling still, the drugs seem to have let loose a deep psychosis in Beverly, previously lingering just under the surface of his tranquil existence. He becomes delusional and unpredictable, convinced that the women who come to his clinic are somehow mutated. He seeks the assistance of a metallurgical sculptor (Lack) to help him create gynecological instruments for working on "mutant women." Elliott tries to cope with his brother's increasingly erratic behavior in various ways, including locking him in their clinic to detoxify him. However, when it becomes clear that his conventional efforts are unsuccessful, he becomes convinced that he and his brother must stay "in synch" and he begins taking drugs himself to keep up. What follows is an increasingly disturbing look at two men who dive into the deepest levels of self-destruction.

As the above plot synopsis should make clear, there is bizarreness aplenty to satiate previous fans of Cronenberg's work. However, Dead Ringers finds its greatest success as a disturbing character study. Rather than finding a talented set of twins to play the lead roles, Cronenberg cast Jeremy Irons to play both parts. Using split screen techniques and computerized motion control camerawork, Irons appears on screen seamlessly with himself. The effect is quite remarkable. Irons is nothing short of fantastic in the lead roles, creating a deep and convincing disparity between the two brothers. The subtlety he brings to both characters is impressive. Supporting him in the film's only other major role is French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold, who likewise excels in a film portrayal of a famous actress far outside the norm. Niveau is well in charge of her professional life but revels in the depravity of her private life. Dead Ringers does suffer slightly from some lackluster performances by some of its secondary characters, but the deficiency is hardly noticeable.

Dead Ringers is a film that simply drips with stylization. If it has a significant shortcoming, it's that it gets somewhat lost for about half an hour, two-thirds of the way through, with stylishness and atmosphere running on auto-pilot and substance and vitality taking somewhat of a back seat. However, if you are as immersed as deeply into the film as I was the first time I saw it, you will scarcely notice the lull. Dead Ringers is a dark film and certainly not one for all tastes, but fans of Cronenberg and those interested in seeing a creative and well-designed character study that pulls no punches should definitely check it out.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Originally filmed in 1.33:1 and presented theatrically at 1.85:1, Dead Ringers is presented in widescreen matted to 1.66:1, as per David Cronenberg's request. This DVD is the twenty-first entry in the popular Criterion Collection and the widescreen transfer is not anamorphic. As I understand it, Criterion did not begin offering anamorphic transfers until their forty-seventh entry, Insomnia (another dark character study definitely worth checking out).

With only two or three exceptions, the entire film occurs indoors. This, combined with the brooding look sought after by Cronenberg and director of photography Peter Suschitzky, makes Dead Ringers a very dark film visually. Most of the sets are dominated by deep blues and grays with the rare, jarring contrast of rich color, as in the operating theater. Even within this limited spectrum, color contrast is very good with realistic fleshtones and deep blacks. Overall clarity in the print is quite good, but the visual presentation is somewhat marred by incessant, fine digital noise that appears throughout.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital surround, Dead Ringers is largely a monophonic sound experience. Virtually no audio directionality occurs on the front soundstage at all. Excepting the occasional strong use of atmospheric envelopment, the surround channel is primarily utilized for subtle bolstering of Howard Shore's original score. A fuller, crisper audio transfer would have been much better.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 43 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director David Cronenberg, Jeremy Irons, editor Ron Sanders, production designer Carol Spier, and director of photography Peter Suschitzky
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:45m:03s

Extra Extras:
  1. Twinning Effects
  2. The Strange Objects of David Cronenberg's Desire
  3. Colorbars
Extras Review: Like many other Criterion Collection releases, Dead Ringers comes with an extensive and interesting batch of bonus materials. At the top of the heap is an exclusive commentary track featuring Cronenberg, Irons, production designer Carol Spier, editor Ron Sanders and director of photography Peter Suschitzky. This is not a group commentary recorded with all of these people in the same room—comments from each were recorded separately and blended together in a logical fashion. Clearly, a lot of thought was put into who would comment over what scene because the comment placement is very well choreographed. The end result is loaded with fascinating insights into many different aspects of the presentation and should prove to be a huge winner with any fans of the film.

Also included are two extras that are a little bit out of the ordinary. The first, Twinning Effects, is a close look at the process that went into creating the ten or eleven scenes wherein both of Jeremy Irons' twins appear together on screen. This feature includes six sections, each devoted to a different "twinning effect" and each preceded by production notes explaining the background of the scene, as well as the motion control camera/split screen methods used in creating them. The sections themselves run about three-four minutes each and include mastered footage of Irons playing each "half" of the scene as well as rough split footage generated on set. This is a great extra if you are interested in the camera effects mastery that went into creating these illusions. The other unusual extra is called The Strange Objects of David Cronenberg's Desire, which is actually the name of a traveling exhibit that was put together to showcase the production drawings, objects, and creatures from Cronenberg's many films. Divided into three parts, it is comprised of stills and notes relating specifically to this film. The first section is 18 panels long and contains the interesting artwork used in the opening titles sequence. The second section, entitled Mathematics in Metal, features 6 color stills of the unusual metallic artwork created by Anders Wolleck for the film. The last section, Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women, features 30 stills of the surgical instruments that Bev has Wolleck help him create, as well as the original production sketches.

Three pretty standard extras round out the included bonus materials. A seven-minute featurette, comprised of narration, film footage, some production footage, and interview segments. Its run time, however, is far too short to really offer much of a behind-the-scenes look into the film. The original theatrical trailer is also included. Both the featurette and the trailer are presented in single-channel mono. Lastly, color bars for calibrating your display are included.

As we have come to expect from Criterion, this disc comes with a nice batch of supplementary material. The commentary and the Twinning Effects feature in particular are definitely worth looking into. One notable shortcoming is the lack of either subtitles or captions on this disc, so if you are hearing-impaired, you may want to take this into account.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Dead Ringers contains no exploding heads, blood-sucking parasites, or hallucinogenic netherworlds, but it is vintage Cronenberg nonetheless. Dark, brooding, and very disturbing, Dead Ringers really shines because of its effective and deliberate vision, the wonderful use of "twinning effects", and very strong performances from its two leads. It is a must see for viewers with a strong stomach and a taste for the morbid.


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