This is not a horror movie, per say. But it is most certainly not an erotic thriller as the box description would have you believe. At least, I have an exceptionally hard time finding any part of this Cronenberg feature “erotic.” But maybe that’s because I am a woman, and my vagina is under attack by the Mantle Brothers.

Dead Ringers

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

There are many movies in my repertoire that I consider horrific, but are in fact, not horror movies. They are dramas, westerns, thrillers, the occasional teen romance. But David Cronenberg’s movies are exquisitely placed in a genre all their own. Dead Ringers is particularly special.

Firstly, it has Jeremy Irons. Talented as he may be playing just one part, in this film, he plays two. Twins. Together in almost every scene. You will forget by minute five (or perhaps you will never notice at all) that these are not two people, and that Irons is only one incredible actor. Although, as Cronenberg geniusly directs, by the end of the film, you’ll be left wondering whether there ever were two characters to begin with.

Second, you must wait for the horror to start. You must wait a good, long while before there is any real violence occurring. But when it does, it comes in swarms. And it is, like all Cronenberg body horror, somewhere between monstrous and medical, nightmarish and naturalistic.

For those looking for outright slasher, this one isn’t going to cut it. In one of my favorite books on “horror philosophy,” scholar Noel Carroll coins the term “art horror.” To be horrified, in your real life existence, is different from the experience one has at the movie theatre. When you are sitting in your seat, watching the most gruesome scene, you are not in fact, experiencing that trauma directly. To be really horrified, is to be violated directly and physically; to watch a horrible act first hand, to have your body cut open and writhe in pain, to be scared of an intruder in your home. What you experience on-screen (or reading a book, for that matter), is something else – something one step removed.

When you watch a film, you are willingly sitting in front of a screen, watching a contrived narrative play out before you. Although your body may make you feel scared, or experience something like fear, you are not actually experiencing that fear first hand. Because you are, in fact, quite safe in your seat, watching things occur with a clear line between yourself and what is behind the screen. To be art-horrified then, is to experience horror willingly, and to deliberately induce the feeling.  Big concept. Hard to put your finger on. But you know the feeling, right? To be in a car accident produces one sensation. To watch one unfold on-screen as part of a fictional story, creates another.

Considering that idea, think about how non-horror films could be read as horror. Does something need to be gruesome to art-horrify you? Or can it simply be a disturbing change in character? A sinister tone? One of my favorite non-horror “horror” movies is There Will Be Blood – watch this period drama again (or for the first time if you haven’t), and think of it as a monster movie. I guarantee it will change the experience for you.

In Dead Ringers, I am immediately disturbed, though not necessarily scared. The Mantle Twins as children are oddly adult, fixated on sex – and odd sex at that – and when Elliot asks Bev, “are you thinking what I’m thinking?” the very last thing you’d expect two people to be thinking of simultaneously is what comes out of Elliot’s mouth (I won’t tell you, because this is a surprise everyone should have the joy of experiencing).

The art-horror comes into play as soon as the boys, as pre-med undergraduates, design a contraption for holding the body open during a surgical procedure. The device looks torturous. I immediately imagine what these two men might use it for. Then they become gynecologists. I am beginning to grow very uncomfortable from this side of the screen.

It only worsens as the film goes on. By the time Bev visits an artist’s metalwork studio to have special “tools” made for the “mutant women” he believes keep showing up in his office, I am as deeply scared as I think I’m going to get. Part of the real horror of this work is the waiting – wondering what might happen, what the twins are capable of, and what you eventually know is coming.

It’s that knowing, I think, that really enacts the penultimate moment of art-horror in Dead Ringers. Much like the events of The Shining, when it finally happens, you have seen it coming from a mile away. But it is so terrible, so troubled, so physically revolting, that you can’t help yourself. In an act of deeply disturbed catharsis, you have been waiting to see what becomes of Elliot and Bev. And when that catharsis arrives, you feel it, art-horrified (and maybe despicably satisfied), in the pit of your stomach.

I haven’t given you very much to go on. But I want you to watch this one. And the less I say, the more art-horrified you’re going to be.

Great Scene:

Any appointment at the gynecologist is a pretty awful one, as far as I’m concerned. But when Bev has begun to go off his rocker, and chooses, let’s just say, “the wrong instrument” for the procedure, I have never felt so sick in my whole life. I’m sure this is because as a woman, I can relate to the nice lady stuck with her legs straddled in that familiar chair, but I’d be curious to meet any man who doesn’t feel violated by this moment, too. The Mantle Brothers’ bed-side manner is definitely lacking.

Other Things to Notice:

Cronenberg makes great use of the color red.

Jeremy Irons Dead Ringers Watercolor Illustration
“Dr. Mantle” | Original Art by Alex Landers

With each doctor, nurse, and attendant in red scrubs, the operating room looks like a cross between a Catholic church and a Satanic cult – not to mention, the cut of Bev’s scrubs are identical to a priest’s robes.

If You Like It, Watch:

The Brood – Full disclosure, I’m trying very hard to get my hands on this earlier Cronenberg film to share with you this month. It’s currently being rereleased by Criterion, and won’t be available for purchase until next week. But if you can get your hands on this at your local library (it’s a classic, they should have it), you will not be disappointed. It is a brilliant mix of the director’s signature body horror and psychological manifestation.

Reanimator – If you want full-on body horror, and you like a little H.P. Lovecraft to go with it, you’ll get a kick out of this cult classic. It’s a personal favorite, with enough gore, puss, ooze, and puns to keep me happy – and it’ll lighten the mood in the room a little bit after you’re done getting through the Ringers.

Up Next:

Selections from The Short Films of David Lynch

**Movie Suggestions Update: I’ve gotten great feedback so far, but I want MORE (please)! So far I’ve heard requests for Planet Terror and Don’t Look Now. What else do you think I should see? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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