Dead Ringers, which released in 1988, was a very Cronenbergish excursion into the macabre, based on the true story of twin-brother gynecologists and starring Jeremy Irons in one of his most skillful performances. The movie won plaudits for its storyline as well as its technical execution.
David Cronenberg may be a master of “anger hidden within,” yet with Dead Ringers he was also at the forefront of technology. He filmed Irons as both characters in the same frame using the then-latest movie technology. Essentially, the camera was computer controlled and they would rewind the film and reshoot with Irons switching roles.
Modern computer effects render such effects much easier, without the costly set-up time. Suffice it to say that the twins crossed the line of what was morally acceptable in the medical community.
Flash-forward thirty-five years and a new mini-series debuting on Prime this week tells a similar story with the same title, starring Rachel Weisz in dual roles as Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Both versions are based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Grassland.
The new Dead Ringers switches the Mantle twins’ gender while keeping the creepy spine of the movie intact. In the movie version, a significant part of the film depicted how the brothers were possibly switching out with one’s celebrity girlfriend, unbeknownst (at least at first) to her, as well as having mutual affairs with their head nurse.
The first shot of the first episode of the new show has Weisz as both sisters in a diner where they are promptly and unceremoniously hit on by a rube in the adjoining booth.
“Is your imagination so fucked you have to see everything twice before you get hard,” one of the twins says. Within minutes there’s a montage of women giving births that leaves nothing to the imagination. This is followed by a graphic depiction of a cesarean operation that informs the viewer just how bloody and in-your-face Dead Ringers intends to go.
The twins hook up with an entrepreneur (Jennifer Ehle) who funds plans to build a birthing center for research and maternity treatment that when complete has an exterior that looks like a spaceship crashed into a modern art museum.
Impressive set design and Weisz’s rather brilliant delineation of her dual characters notwithstanding, the new Dead Ringers runs the gauntlet that so many longform shows experience. There’s a lot of filler in six-hours to get to the heart of a simple story.
On one hand, you have to admire the tongue-in-cheekiness of concluding each episode with a song that plays with the concept. “Tainted Love,” “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Don’t You Want Me (Baby),” and “Super Freaky Girl” are a few of the needle drops. And there’s only one other film in recent memory that had a character that used a trepan to drill a hole in their head (Darren Aronofsky’s debut film Pi). Here we have an entire dinner table of trepanned eaters.
There’s a subtle quaintness in the way the audience is not always supposed to know which twin is which. Clues like Elliot wearing her hair long and Beverly wearing her locks tied up or in a ponytail are occasionally tossed to the wind.
When you watch a show on a repeated basis, you want to return to a familiar notion, something that makes you feel comfortable.
In Dead Ringers, all that each episode offers seems to be the repeated sarcastic wit of the Mantle twins with their airs of superior intelligence and the overwhelming gore provided by the operating room. Such abstraction would work much better as a feature film.