You don't have to be an identical twin to feel unsettled watching David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988), but it helps. Growing up, my twin brother Dan and I enjoyed the benefits of looking alike---fooling our friends and relatives, sharing (and occasionally swapping) classes in school---while enduring terrible jokes at our expense, and we still have an unspoken link that allows us to literally finish each other's sentences on occasion. But since we're not sociopaths, we never took advantage of our mutual appearance in a mean-spirited manner. Dead Ringers' Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons, in a career-defining dual role) can't say as much: we follow these brothers from their socially awkward childhood to a joint career path as gynecologists who share unsuspecting women and an apartment.
Are the root causes of their awful scheming split down the middle? Certainly not, as the more confident and aggressive Elliot seems more interested in deceiving his sexual targets, while the timid and emotional Beverly is given "the scraps" after Elliot is finished. Yet both are accomplices and, more often than not, the women in their lives don't even realize they're being taken advantage of. This all changes with Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), an actress unable to bear children who becomes involved with Elliot; once he's done with her, Beverly's sudden emotional attachment to Claire throws off the balance...as does their shared addiction to prescription drugs, which leads to clinical depression after Claire discovers the ugly truth about the Mantle brothers and lashes out accordingly. This doesn't make the brutal fallout of Dead Ringers any easier to stomach than the setup, but the way in which emotional connections are explored and obliterated makes it a grotesque, fascinating psychological drama with layers of complexity.
Co-written by Norman Snider (Casino Jack), Dead Ringers easily stands as one of David Cronenberg's most gruesome and heart-wrenching films in a figurative sea of potential candidates. As the director's first major step outside the horror genre, it nonetheless shares visual (if not emotional) similarities with films like Videodrome and The Fly while remaining much more grounded in harsh reality. Yet most of Dead Ringers' staying power lies with Irons' successful dual-role gimmick: combined with a number of clever tricks (early attempts at computer-controlled motion tracking, split-screen, etc.), his memorable performance as two distinctly different people is what draws and holds our attention. It's the kind of film only the squeamish will watch once; unless you're repulsed by Dead Ringers and run for the hills, you'll be compelled to dig through it several times to fully digest the way it's been put together.
Originally released on DVD by The Criterion Collection back in 2000 (which was, more or less, a direct port of their 1996 laserdisc), Dead Ringers also earned a 2005 DVD from Warner Bros. So while it's been a long road to Blu-ray, Shout Factory's Collector's Edition seems to be worth the wait: highlights include a new 2K scan, lossless 5.1 audio, and a fairly good cross-section of old and new extras. It's a fine package for a film that's often overlooked in the director's considerable body of work, as monstrous and effective now as it likely was almost 30 years ago.
Video & Audio Quality
Somewhat ironically, Shout Factory's two-disc Collector's Edition serves up two distinctly different visual presentations of the film: Disc One contains a less polished 1.78:1 1080p transfer from what appears to be older source material, while Disc Two offers a brand new 2K scan of the interpositive framed at a director-preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio (and just for the record, it's slightly cropped on the sides and the vertical framing is a bit different too). There are more than a few other differences here: the color temperature is slightly warmer on the new scan---but not dramatically---and overall texture levels appear smoother and more film-like with less digital noise, more natural grain, and no apparent edge enhancement. It's also a shade brighter and not quite as artificially boosted, with slightly better shadow detail and contrast levels during many of the darker scenes. I prefer the newer transfer for obvious reasons...but I still wouldn't call it definitive, as we don't quite get the crispness and clarity of something sourced from the original camera negative. Even so, it's easily the best I've seen Dead Ringers look on home video.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
Both discs also feature your choice of DTS-HD 5.1 or 2.0 Master Audio tracks; the former option definitely carries more weight and effectiveness overall, but I couldn't help but notice it's mixed a good 5-10 dB louder than most discs in recent memory. Regardless, the biggest benefit here is Howard Shore's memorable score: it frequently drifts into the rear channels without overpowering dialogue, which is largely anchored up front. Speech is clear and distinct from start to finish, with decent channel separation and a few subtle (and not-so-subtle) background touches along the way. In contrast, the 2.0 track also employs a few simulated surround tricks, so those with two-channel setups will appreciate the option. Optional English SDH subtitles have been included during the main feature only.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The interface is presented in Shout's typical no-frills style and features smooth, simple navigation and the bare minimum of pre-menu distractions. Separate options are provided for chapter selection, subtitle setup, and additional bonus features. This release is packaged in a dual-hubbed keepcase with stylish, attractive reversible cover artwork featuring new and vintage artwork promoting the film, plus a matching slipcover for good measure.
Disc One includes two Audio Commentaries: the first is a new and exclusive track featuring William Beard, author of The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg; the second is an older commentary with Jeremy Irons from Warner Bros.' 2005 DVD (sadly, the terrific commentary from Criterion's out-of-print 2000 DVD could not be licensed). As expected, Beard's track features more than a few comparisons between Dead Ringers and Cronenberg's other films; topics include the opening credits sequence, "tools of the trade", Elliot and Beverly as husband and wife, Cronenberg's first non-horror film, analyzing the characters' behavior, foreshadowing and symbolism, religious iconography, lighting and mood, unconscious behavior and rationality, the inevitable ending, and much more. It's more dryly academic than enlightening at times, but die-hard fans should still enjoy hearing most of what Beard has to say.
Disc Two leads off with a handful of new Interviews with actors Heidi Von Palleske (19:04) and Stephen Lack (23:56), make-up effects artist Gordon Smith (19:16), and director of photography Peter Suschitski (12:41). These are all worth watching: Palleske shares some welcome insight about her experiences on the set; Lack is a hoot to listen to; Smith details a handful of the unsettling effects developed during production; and Suschitski goes into modest detail about the use of lighting, mood, and camera tricks to make everything work. The absence of Cronenberg and Irons is more than a little disappointing, but at least it's nice to hear from a few different perspectives here.
Also included on the second discs are a few holdovers from the Warner Bros. and Criterion DVDs, including a collection of Vintage Interviews with Jeremy Irons, David Cronenberg, producer Marc Bowman, and co-writer Norman Snyder (17:03 total), as well as a short but interesting Vintage Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (7:13) and the film's memorable Theatrical Trailer (1:36). Unfortunately, no optional subtitles are included for any of these extras.
One of David Cronenberg's best films, the polarizing Dead Ringers is an uncomfortable but compelling examination of twin brothers spiraling out of control. Featuring plenty of memorable performances---not the least of which is Jeremy Irons, who's good enough to fool first-time viewers---and unique camera tricks that serve the story, this ambitious production remains one of cinema's most unique psychological dramas to date. Shout Factory's Collector's Edition Blu-ray represents a logical progression from Criterion's 2000 release and Warner Bros.' 2005 DVD, pairing a great A/V presentation with a handful of mostly new extras. It's a terrific package for a deserving film and, while those new to the director's work should rent it first, seasoned fans should dive right in. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.