Review Date: February 5, 2005
Released by: TVA Films
Release date: 9/28/2004
MSRP: $29.98 (Canadian)
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: No
Of all the modern legends of horror, David Cronenberg has perhaps had the most interesting career arc. After his first few warped shockers, Shivers
, Cronenberg had been naively deemed an exploitation filmmaker. The B-movie racing flick, Fast Company
certainly didn’t do anything to help shake that reputation. Then came the slick and accessible The Dead Zone
and The Fly
, which turned Cronenberg from low budget schlockster to Hollywood hotshot. Still though, as an artist, Cronenberg still drew little respect. Then came Dead Ringers
, the true turning point of his career. It served as a bridge between his down and dirty early horror and his more celebrated adaptations that would follow. It signaled the critical eye to a director concerned with more than just bodily horror, elevating him almost instantly from low-brow to high. Now, 15 years later, the man who made a career of phallic armpits and vaginal-dwelling creatures is heralded as Canada’s premier auteur.
The film that paved the way for his critical acceptance, Dead Ringers
, is now available again on DVD. Initially a barebones Anchor Bay release, and then one of Criterion’s early DVDs, Ringers
is now available with all the Criterion extras and a cheaper price tag, thanks to TVA films. Let’s ring up Cronenberg’s demented mind and explore this watershed picture.
The film begins with a montage of medieval paintings of birth and torture. Although these paintings would foreshadow the gynecological instruments used later in the film, the title painting is of the most importance. Beside the words Dead Ringers
is a shot of two twins facing different directions yet connected in the same womb. Two twins who share the same mind, both united and paradoxically completely different. That is the essence of the film as Cronenberg explores the lives of Beverly and Elliott Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons
). After the credits, Cronenberg gives a quick summation of the Mantles’ lives thus far. They started off as horny little children, grew to be successful medical students at Cambridge, and finally ended up becoming renowned gynecologists. The movie starts off at their apex of success, and takes the viewer on a vicious downward spiral.
The Mantle brothers work together and share credit on all their medical accomplishments, but it is clear that they are autonomous from one another. Elliot is the suave front man, confident under the crunch and able to handle himself well in the public eye. Beverly, with his feminine name, is predictably far less domineering than the masculine Elliot. He works behind the scenes, developing the ideas and instruments that Elliot helps to sell to the mass audience. Bev is shy, quiet and compassionate, in many ways a complete opposite of his twin. The two are paradoxes, so similar yet so different. The two are nonetheless very close, and even at times share the same lovers. After Elliot gets sick of bedding popular actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold
), he offers her to Bev. Bev accepts Elliot’s perverse gesture, but it is ultimately that choice that leads the two on their eminent downward spiral.
Claire eventually finds out that the two twins have pulled a switcheroo on her, and ends up driving the two brothers further apart. She creates jealousy in Bev, not soon after having weaned him onto drugs. After all the heartbreak, Bev begins to detest the way Elliot controls and dominates his existence. He sets off for independence, but Elliot won’t allow it. The two are a unit, and without the ying there is no yang. The further the two split, the weaker they become, until they tragically end up how they started: two souls sleeping together as one.
The most noticeable thing about Dead Ringers
is how much more mature it seems than all of Cronenberg’s previous films. Much more psychological than Shivers
and even The Brood
, Cronenberg concentrates this time on the mental rather than the bodily horror he had been known for. There is much less gore, and the direction is far more reserved, detached. Everything has a polish of a great filmmaker, but in Cronenberg’s case, that isn’t such a good thing. Cronenberg was at his best when he was his most visceral, redeeming splatter with actual substance. His early films had a wild, unkempt energy of a truly unique and disturbed mind. Dead Ringers
is Cronenberg holding back; it is Cronenberg’s plea for credibility. An auteur clipping his wings to cater to the critical elite.
It is clear that Cronenberg was conflicted while making the film. On one hand was a yearning for greater critical respect, and on the other is an unwillingness to give up his low-budget lunacy. While he reserves the drama for high brow concepts like medicine and relationship triangles, he also has a few unhinged scenes akin to his earlier work. Scenes of Jeremy Irons biting away the flesh that connects the two brothers, or Irons cutting apart his other self have a bloody intensity. They accomplish what Cronenberg does best, creating a physical representation of complex psychological thoughts much like the psychoplasmics of The Brood
. But more often than not, Cronenberg choses to remain detached, instilling the film with a cold pretentiousness.
Like the twins in the film, Cronenberg has broken into two different artistic mindsets. Cronenberg’s resemblance to Elliot and Beverly goes beyond the figurative into the literal in the way he presents the twins. Jeremy Irons, arguably the actor most resembling David Cronenberg in the first place, is made up to look even more like Davie, with his long parted hair and large rimmed glasses. Cronenberg makes the Mantles’ hometown Toronto, where Cronenberg was also born and raised. The child representations of the Mantles speak with a Freudian perversity that Cronenberg exudes in nearly every interview he conducts. Moreso, like the Mantles, Cronenberg’s initial major in university was in the sciences, and he even played a gynecologist in his previous film, The Fly
. Cronenberg always seems to incorporate aspects of himself into his films, be it his custody battle in The Brood
or his love of cars in Fast Company
, but never has Cronenberg been as literal as he is in Dead Ringers
in inserting himself into his film. With Dead Ringers
, Cronenberg was splitting into two entities, a madcap exploitation filmmaker and a collected and reserved critical auteur, and this dichotomy is brought out with Jeremy Irons’ dual role.
Irons’ performances are the major draw for Ringers, as he is able to really give unique personality to each character, differentiating the two in action rather than simple appearance. The effect of blending the two Irons characters on screen at once was groundbreaking for its time, but as technically superior as it is, it nonetheless distracts. Until Irons fully immerses himself into the emotional complexities of the brothers during the final act, the performance and the effects come off as an obtrusive gimmick. With every new two shot comes the itching question of how Cronenberg pulled it off, which continually takes away from the narrative. It is no surprise that the focus of the DVD is on the twinning effects, because that is the draw of the film over and above the narrative. It is technically proficient, but emotionally restrained. I’d take the visual simplicity and emotional depth of The Brood
I am being hard on Dead Ringers
. It is Cronenberg’s most complex narrative, and imbued within it are Cronenberg’s omnipresent themes like the boundaries of the body, the (literal) instruments of the mind, and the Freudian undertones of familial relationships. The film is just as profound as the rest of his works, and remains just as oddly interesting throughout. But it is so hard to like. Cronenberg approaches the material with such a cold distance and such a restrained style that it is hard to warm up to it like it is his earlier films. His early films were physiological musings masked as engaging exploitation, Dead Ringers
feels more like a psychology essay. It is thought provoking, smart, expertly crafted but objectively detached. Dead Ringers
is one of Cronenberg’s least enjoyable, but with a body of work as consistently good as Cronenberg’s, that’s still a compliment.
Like its previous DVD releases before this, Dead Ringers
is disappointingly presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen. There seems to be a shying away from anamorphically enhancing 1.66:1 material, most famously evidenced by Warner Brothers’ treatment of Barry Lyndon
. Like the pan and scan logic, companies seem to be afraid of how black bars on both the vertical and horizontal axes would look on standard TVs, rather than considering how awful they will look in the future on 16x9 televisions. Either that is the excuse for this non-anamorphic transfer, or TVA was just too lazy to re-transfer the already acceptable print.
Once one gets over the non-anamorphic hurdle, this is still a competent and overall pleasing transfer. Although color depth tends to be a tad flat at times, with the red surgical outfits demonstrating little color difference, color accuracy is very fine. Skin tones look good, and the limited shades of red demonstrated do look vivid. There is some grain, and the picture looks a tad soft, but the lack of sharpness is made up for by the cleanliness of the print. Specs and blemishes are kept to a minimal. While the transfer may be old, it has held up satisfyingly well. Hopefully one day it gets the anamorphic enhancement it deserves however.
The sound is presented in mono, but it is a nice mix that sounds clearer and fuller than it has any right to. There is no distortion, and everything comes through very clear. For a six year old sound mix, it’s not too shabby.
Like the video and audio tracks, the supplements on this disc are a direct port from the Criterion disc. In fact, the Criterion menus have even been kept in tact. The first supplement is a commentary with David Cronenberg, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, production designer Carol Spier, editor Ron Sanders and Jeremy Irons. In typical Criterion fashion, each has been recorded separately and edited together. Cronenberg starts things off by saying how traumatic the commentary will be for him, since it is always a scary thing revisiting his own work. Nevertheless, he is very vocal and ultimately carries the track. One of the best moments in the commentary is when Cronenberg discusses the many people who turned down the script, citing it because of mankind’s fear of gynecology. The rest of the participants are, understandably, not nearly as deep, but still all over their takes on the film. Irons is particularly engaging when he discusses the acting process used to differentiate the two characters. It’s a solid track, although it probably would have been even better had Cronenberg gone solo.
As good as the commentary is, the most interesting supplement is the “Twinning Effects” section, which presents six of the 11 twinning effects used in the film in full detail. Each effect, from the hospital hallway shot to the heartbreaking final shot, is deconstructed with text introductions and then footage of each take of the two different characters, and then a clip of the actual matting process. At the time of it’s release, this kind of thing was virtually unheard of, and the way it is documented here will put all questions to rest. Sure, the clips themselves distract in the film, but at least there is this extra to show how they pulled off such a complex magic trick. Overall, this whole section is fairly large, and should take around thirty minutes to navigate through.
The next supplement is a number of concept galleries, entitled “The Strange Objects of David Cronenberg’s Desire”. It features three major sections: original designs for the opening credit sequence, instruments for operating on mutant women, and mathematics in metal. Mostly just black and white drawings, they are interesting in deconstructing Cronenberg’s thought process, and to see how he translates his ideas from concept to screen.
The disc is rounded out with promotional materials, namely the trailer and the making-of featurette. The featurette is just over seven minutes long, and has interviews with Cronenberg, Irons and producers, and is capped off with some robotic narration. Cronenberg cuts a bit deeper than the usual promotional interviews, but this is still generally a puff piece. The trailer frames the film in the same exploitation vein of Cronenberg’s earlier films. Both are supplements are forgettable at best, and it is no surprise why the film didn’t generate the box office dollars it could have.
Color bars are also included, so you can all calibrate your setups for this benchmark testing non-anamorphic transfer. Criterion is never a slouch when it comes to extras, and they more than package the film with enough worthwhile content to satisfy fans. Videodrome
it ain’t, however.
is an emotionally cold film, more pretentious than Cronenberg’s earlier films, and much less fun. It still remains a solid film, and features great (if distracting) effects and a tour de force dual-role by Jeremy Irons. The non-anamorphic transfer is a bit of a downer, and the mono mix certainly won’t push the system to new limits either. The supplements are well made in typical Criterion form, and should definitely interest the casual Cronenberg fan. This new TVA release can be obtained for much cheaper than the Criterion used to be, so those who haven’t got the film yet, now is the time. It is one of Cronenberg’s most important films, his leap to legitimacy, and for that alone Cronenberg scholars are going to want to check it out.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B
Sound - B-
Supplements - B+
- Running Time - 1 hour 55 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- Commentary with David Cronenberg, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, production designer Carol Spier, editor Ron Sanders and Jeremy Irons
- "Twinning Effects" video demonstrations
- Concept art galleries
- Making-of featurette
- Color bars