The Fertile Horror of Dead Ringers

On July 17th, 1975, the twin gynecologists Cyril and Stewart Marcus were found dead in their Manhattan apartment. According to news reports, the unit was squalid, filled with trash that had been accumulating for some time. Both brothers were believed to have died from either barbiturate overdose or withdrawal, though this has never been conclusively determined. Mental illness and even a suicide pact were also floated as possible factors in their demise. Perhaps inevitably, this lurid end of two promising doctors became the basis of a speculative novel, Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. In 1988, David Cronenberg released his adaptation, Dead Ringers. As is only appropriate for a story that’s in part about the inescapable cycles of doubling, it will soon be adapted again as a miniseries starring Rachel Weisz. 

While there’s a certain trendiness to the gender-swapping of the lead characters, it’s a fertile time to explore what Washington Post reviewer Rita Kempley called “every woman’s nightmare” – that the physician examining and evaluating the most private parts of your anatomy might be deceiving you – from a female perspective. Cronenberg, of course, has never shied away from the grotesque potentials of the human form, but Dead Ringers feels unique in his filmography for its thoughtful melding of body horror and character study. It is, in many ways, his most mature and intimate work. 

A lot of this can be attributed to Jeremy Irons, who plays Beverly and Elliot Mantle with a seamlessness that often feels like a magic trick happening before our eyes. Rather than cuing the audience with identifiable haircuts or clothing, Irons employs an array of subtle mannerisms and verbal tics to let us know which brother we’re looking at: the more socially adept and cynical Ellie or the shier, more sensitive Bev. Even then, it’s not always obvious, something the Mantle twins use to their advantage. Ellie is “the face” of their practice, accepting the awards and gladhanding the donors. Bev does the research and handles the patients. When needed, they sub in for one another during appointments. As we soon discover, they do this with their sexual conquests too, a game of brinkmanship where the brothers are as much one another’s pawns as the women Ellie seduces before handing them over to Bev.

This theoretical attitude towards sex dates back to their childhood. In the film’s mordantly funny opening scene, the nine-year-old twins discuss Elliot’s discovery that humans don’t fertilize eggs like fish do because they don’t live underwater. They approach a neighborhood girl to ask if she’ll have sex with them in their bathtub as an experiment; she promptly tells them to fuck off. “They’re so different from us,” Elliot muses, a statement that will become the guiding philosophy behind their entire careers. Almost as soon as we’ve met them they become leaders in their field, but for all they’ve learned about the internal mechanics of reproductive organs from diagrams, there are certain emotional elements to copulation that remain elusive to the Mantles. 

At least until they meet Claire (played by a spiky Genevieve Bujold), who upsets the balance between the brothers, so carefully maintained that Ellie speaks of their need to “synchronize,” like watches. As with much of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, there is a gaping hole at the center of this story, though this one is figurative rather than literal. There is something immaculate about the Mantle’s existence, and I don’t just mean the gleaming interiors of their shared apartment. They appear to subsist entirely on each other. Though they obviously had a father and mother at some point, neither is ever mentioned or seen. It’s a familial absence that Claire will soon fill, at least for one of them. 

Like most of their conquests she begins as a patient. She first draws Ellie’s interest because she’s an actress; she draws Bev’s because she has a “trifurcated” cervix. It means she likely can’t have the children she desperately wants; instead, she gets the Mantle boys. The way Cronenberg stages Bev and Claire’s trysts has a distinctly maternal vibe. Bev often ends up clutching her by the waist, leaning his head against her stomach. She comforts him after nightmares and feeds him pills like candy. But Ellie’s parasitical relationship with his brother can’t accommodate such an attachment, and soon enough the three are barrelling towards inevitable tragedy. 

The Mantles are hardly the first of Cronenberg’s characters to exhibit what psychologists would call a “God complex,” but there is something disturbingly pure in their pursuit of it. What else would drive men to seek dominion over the life-giving power of the uterus but a need to control what they don’t understand, and could never possess? Late in the film, Bev is dressed by attendees in the blood red medical gown worn in the operating theater, lifting his arms so he looks “more like a cultic high priest than a modern man of science,” as Helen W. Robbins writes in her essay “More Human Than I Am Alone.” 

Such megalomania will be fruitful territory for the miniseries to explore in a post-Roe world, but in the end the Mantle brothers are less interested in fusing with the feminine than with one another. While the Marcus corpses were found in separate rooms, Cronenberg closes his film with a much more indelible image: the twins curled fetally against one another, creating in death the womb they’ve spent their whole lives seeking. It will be a tough act to follow.

“Dead Ringers” is streaming on HBO Max and Peacock.

Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection 'Better Times,' which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is available from University of Nebraska Press. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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