Reviewed by
Chris Galloway

Title: Dead Ringers: Criterion (1988)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

In Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg tells the chilling story of identical twin gynecologists--suave Elliot and sensitive Beverly, bipolar sides of one personality--who share the same practice, the same apartment, the same women. When a new patient, glamorous actress Claire Niveau, challenges their eerie bond, they descend into a whirlpool of sexual confusion, drugs and madness. Jeremy Irons' tour-de-force performance--as both twins--raises disturbing questions about the nature of personal identity.

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi Von Palleske, Barbara Gordon.
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio English Digital Stereo; subtitles none; single sided - dual layered; no chapters; rated R; 115 min.; $39.95; street date 10/14/98.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by director Cronenberg, Jeremy Irons, editor Ronald Sanders, production designer Carol Spier, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; The Original Designs for the opening credit sequence; Drawings and Photographs of the medical instruments and sculptures designed for the film; Twinning Effect/Motion Control Footage; Electronic Press Kit, including theatrical trailer and featurette.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/F/B

I hate twin movies. Even when I was younger I disliked them strongly. I remember watching The Parent Trap as a younger lad and even then I was annoyed at how the movie was so busy focusing on the fact that there are two Haley Mills on the screen rather than a story. Same thing with that Elvis movie, Kissing Cousins I think it was called (my mom likes Elvis, I had no choice in watching it, I swear!). Look! Two Elvis'!! Doesn't matter the movie has the same effect as getting your tooth pulled off, there are two of them on screen! Or you also get into some of the old clichés in some movies of evil twin and bad twin. Or you get a set of twins played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito for a joke (okay).

There are only two twin movies I can think of that actually work in my opinion. Actually (and some people will be shocked by this) I rather liked The Dark Half, a rather fun Stephen King thriller. Yeah, it was good twin, evil twin, but it was fun and didn't revel in its effects. And then Dead Ringers would be up there.

Dead Ringers is far from perfect, though. I liked it more for how it was handled technically and for its rather engrossing first half. It is a movie by David Cronenberg so people who have seen his movies (especially his Canadian ones like Crash and eXistenZ) will know that this isn't your standard fair. Not only do you get some disturbing questions presented on individualism, it's very, uh, taboo I guess you can say.

First off, it's not just a twin movie but also where the twins are gynecologists! Name me another gynecologist film! Jeremy Irons plays the twins, Beverly and Elliot Mantle. We first meet them when they are younger children and already seem interested in the female form. They then grow up and we see them in medical school. Then we make it to present day Toronto where we learn of their operations. The two share the same apartment, the same practice and even the same women, switching identities and each "taking a turn".

Bev gets a new patient named Claire (Genevieve Bujold) and she has a strange deformity. Her insides aren't as they should be and this seems to fascinate Bev. The two begin to get closer and it begins to threaten the two brother's relationship with each other. She ends up opening that Pandora's box and Bev goes into a whirlpool of drugs and insanity. He becomes obsessed with this woman, even going to the extent of making odd tools to deal with her deformity. Elliot ends up having to try to take care of him but as Bev seems to get more detached from Elliot, Elliot starts going through a confusing state and begins falling into that same trap of drugs. As it's suggested (especially by the conclusion) the two brothers can't live without each other. They depend on each other and when this woman comes in it threatens them.

This is all thrilling stuff and I found it quite captivating. It is actually quite frightening (the true scares come from the psyche and Cronenberg has always known this) but then I find the movie becomes rather cheap in its last half. The thing is that once we have those Clive Barker-influenced tools introduced the movie starts going down the path of a cheap slasher thriller. While there really aren't any slasher parts it still has that feel and I found that a devastating blow to a movie that was working quite well. But it works during the first half and somewhat in its final shot and it definitely works as an anti-drug message.

If we were to go on that classic Siskel-Ebert thumb scale my thumb would be halfway but I probably wouldn't recommend it. What actually brings my thumb over to the recommending side would be its performances and technical aspects. I mean there are TWO Jeremy Irons there on the screen and it doesn't play as cheaply as those Elvis movies or either version of The Parent Trap. Irons plays both performances as two separate performances instead of as just one split up into two, like The Parent Trap where because of that, the only way you could tell the difference was because ones hair was shorter. While they both look exactly the same (obvious since Irons is playing both) you can still distinguish them. It does fall for one cliché but it does work for the story: the evil twin and the good twin. Although neither is really evil or good, one is more polite and shy than the other. Bev is the quieter, innocent one and Elliot is the more out-going, unsympathetic one. You can always distinguish them until they both go into their drug binges and they seem to switch places but it's easy to pick up who is who again.

The twinning effects are also extremely well done, still working today. Although we never see the two actually touch, they are still amazing effects. They're seamless and the scenes even allow movement. One scene that I still get a kick out of involves one where Bev and Elliot are walking towards the camera side by side. And you can't tell it's an effect. Obviously it is but you can't tell. One thing I always loved about TPT was how one Haley Mills shadow would always get cut off by the split or another shadow would look a little off from the other one. That never occurs here. One scene I have studied over and over again just looking for a mistake is a scene where both Irons walk across screen and there are lit candles in the background. I don't know how hard it was to do this but those candles did not go down one bit. Everytime I look at this scene I'm looking for the candles to drop down a bit but they don't. They don't change position at all. Throughout the movie I could not notice a single flaw with the twinning effects. Rather impressive.

Of course another reason that the twins work is because Cronenberg knows how to handle the scenes. He doesn't play them like the Elvis movie. We don't look up and say "Oh my God! There's two Jeremy Irons up there." It's just a regular scene that plays like there are two actors on screen and nothing more. The effects are not there to amaze but just so the two characters can interact. They serve the story and they work. Its story is not the greatest thing conceived, the subject matter could have been handled in a better fashion. But the handling of the twins as a serious subject and not just a gag or cheap movie trick actually improves the movie.

(Note: The film is based on a true story! Well, for the most part. In New York, twin brothers were found in their room dead from some sort of withdrawal, apparently lying on top of each other. Everyone derived his or her own story from it. As well, if it's driving you nuts as to whom one of the pretty escort twins is, I'm here to save the day; Jill Hannessey-if I spelt that right-from "Law & Order". I'm just picking them out from that show lately! I find it cool she has a twin sister.)

The DVD:

Criterion presents Dead Ringers on a single-sided, dual-layered disc in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. It has not been enhanced for widescreen TVs. The package tells us that Cronenberg actually filmed the movie in the standard ratio of 1.33:1 and this is his preferred aspect ratio. Whatever, just as long as it's widescreen. I like that theater effect. And don't worry; I doubt there's much information in the top and bottom parts.

The picture is pretty good but nothing spectacular. While there is hardly a print flaw in sight (except a fair amount in the opening sequence) it has a few problems. The picture is always sharp but dull. Of course this is more than likely because it's how Cronenberg wanted it. Jagged edges persist quite often, especially in the Toronto skyline, some of the artwork shown and quite often when those odd tools are displayed.

Moiré effects happen a lot, as do shimmering effects. In the opening sequence when the ink sketches are displayed that rainbow appears in the drawings where the lines are too close and I found this distracted and the opening titles lose a bit of their effect. Scenes where windows with blinds appear present shimmering effects, as do some of the suits. Overall it's a pretty good picture but far from perfect.

I was less enthused with the Dolby Digital Stereo Surround track. When I grade I take into account a couple things, today's technology as well as how the audio of the film is presented and the time it was made. I will look at a film in mono from 1949 easier than a 5.1 track from yesterday (although it will probably still win), an okay mono track falling in C+/B- territory. A really impressive one might make it to a B+. With 2 channels it's basically the same thing but if it falls in B+/A- territory it can lose marks because that means an "upgrade" is what should have been done. Otherwise it has to fall in between there to get an okay grade.

Dead Ringers doesn't need a 5.1 Surround track so it's not losing marks there. What is hurting it is it shouldn't even be a plain Stereo track, let alone a surround track. It's mono; I don't care what the package says. No panning exists at all, and there are moments where it should. The same sounds come out of both front speakers. The music creeps back to the back speakers but it's basically like listening to a mono surround environment. It doesn't really matter. It's a very disappointing track and it deserves more. There are many moments where panning should be present and sometimes in the city streets an ambience effect could be added and Howard Shore's score deserves a better treatment rather than that "mono surround" effect.

But wait, that doesn't deserve an F grade, I'm sure you're thinking, and no, it doesn't. A D+ maybe, but not an F. So why the F? Well, I'm getting to that. The track is incredibly distorted! I mean it's bad! Howard Shore's score reaches those screeching heights that some slasher films do. Of course here it gives that fingernails down the chalkboard effect. And it's not just during those high points, it's whenever the music plays, period. It's just simply H-A-R-S-H! I wish I could say speech sounded better but for the most part it doesn't. Speech even comes off harsh sometimes making it hard to understand. I was incredibly surprised at how bad a track can sound. It sounds like some sort of interference was present during the transfer and the fact that no one fixed it ticks me off. Salo's piss-poor mono track actually sounds better than this. And that's bad.

I tried looking into if it was just my disc but after looking at some websites they're all like this. So I'm giving it a bad audio grade. For Criterion, who likes to think of themselves as king of the transfers, this is pretty horrible.

Supplements are interesting, though. And they give us some good ones. This was also released previously on laserdisc and it's basically the same. Yet again I have not seen the laserdisc but a trustworthy source (thanks Colin) has informed me that there are a couple things missing. I don't know why because I am positive they could have fit it. More on that later.

First up is an audio commentary by Cronenberg, Irons, editor Ronald Sanders, production designer Carol Spier and director of photography Peter Suschitzky. Everyone is separated as usual and it's a fairly bland track. Irons is the most interesting of the bunch because he focuses in on what it's like to play a twin role. Suschitzky and Spier offer a bit on the look and locations. This is somewhat interesting since the movie has a very good visual approach to it; they even seem to make Toronto look surreal. Both Cronenberg and Sanders offer more on the special effects and that disappointed me. If there is one thing I wanted to hear it was Cronenberg's take on the characters, what he saw in them. He gets a bit into what interested him in the story but I actually wanted him to explain more into them to see if I missed out on something. He just seems interested in pointing out the cheats he made in the twinning effects.

We get a few photo galleries as well. First up on the list are drawings for the opening title sequence including pictures that never actually made it into the final film. Notes are presented first explaining how the designers were influenced. They combined the idea of medieval torture devices and medieval tools and they come up with a very disturbing effect. That artistic side of me is slowly dwindling away I think as I can't seem to draw anything decent anymore (computer programming will do that to you) but I can still appreciate good work and I like these ink sketches. They also display the original opening title card. The movie was originally called "Twins" but Cronenberg gave the title to the makers of that Scwarzenegger/DeVito mistake. Actually, I am glad that happened. While the title "Dead Ringers" has more of a hokey slasher feel to it, it has more of a kick than "Twins".

We also get a couple other photo galleries. Another one is called "Mathematics in Metal". It's a gallery displaying the artwork by the Wolleck character in the movie. It was actually done by Canadian artist Ted Hunter. While interesting in some regards to look at I wasn't ever that big into non-objective sculptures like the ones presented here. But my heart goes to the guy for the effort he went through to put these things together.

And last for the photo galleries is a gallery devoted to those freaky tools used in the movie in a section called "Instruments for Operating on Mutant Woman". We get a couple of sketches, rough and finished ones as well as the sketches Irons used in the movie. Then we get to see the tools up close themselves (apparently some of them went missing during the shoot so they are not all displayed here). And they are extremely creepy when you get a good look at them. And we get Cronenberg posing with a few of them (adds to the creepiness).

Then we get to my favorite part of the disc; the Twinning Effects. This section is divided into different sub-sections. We get a few pages of notes with each one and then video of the twinning effects. They show us each take on Jeremy Irons, then show it being roughly put together, allowing us to see the partition and then the final product. This is absolutely fascinating. Some people may find these effects cheap but they are very well done and I appreciate the pains the effects crew went through to get them just right.

You then get a couple publicity bits. You get the theatrical trailer and Fox's original production featurette, which is just an ad. There is stuff missing here that was on the laserdisc that I think could still fit in here but has been left out. 2 of them are just more photo galleries, including set photography and promotional artwork. A short by Cronenberg has been omitted, called "Crimes of the Future". I am quite disappointed by this because I'm sure it could have fit, as well, even though I'm not his biggest fan, I would have really liked to see it. I guess I'll have to find the laserdisc.

In closing, the film is mediocre at best but has a first half that is most engaging as well as effects and performances that are flawless. Criterion's DVD, though is a tad disappointing (especially in the audio department). There is also an Anchor Bay release, though I have not seen it. Still, if you must own this movie on DVD, I'd have to recommend it. The picture is still fairly good and the supplements are fairly informative. But take warning in the fact the audio is one of the worst tracks I've heard yet.

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