In July of 1975, Stewart and Cyril Marcus died, both of them, in their Manhattan apartment. Withdrawal from a shared addiction to barbiturates was the official cause of death. They were brothers, identical twins, in fact, and both were gynecologists. Their lives and careers by this point had been shattered not just by drugs, but by malpractice charges having to do with what Ron Rosenbaum and Susan Edmiston, in "Dead Ringers," their Esquire article about the twins, refer to as "a powerful aversion to filling out insurance forms." So this, the ruining of their bodies with drugs and alcohol, and those same substances beginning to affect their work to the point that their careers were essentially ruined, eventually led to their deaths, which, official judgment or no, remained, and remains, mysterious for a variety of reasons. Rosenbaum and Edmiston reproduce a verbatim portion of a conversation between Dr. Mel Platt and Dr. Hugh Luckey, two high-ranking New York doctors who were looking into the case:
PLATT: If I could figure it out I'd write the greatest novel of all times, because this is an enigma that's going to be with us for a long time.
LUCKEY: And I'd buy the movie rights. You're damn right. I can tell you this: You're not gonna find out.
PLATT: You're not gonna find out.
LUCKEY: You're not gonna find out.
PLATT: I wish I could find out.
LUCKEY: That's the honest-to-God truth. You're not gonna find out.
In 1977, Bari Wood and Jack Geasland did write a novel based on the Marcus brothers called Twins. Between 1975 and 1995, Wood wrote six solo novels, all in the horror genre as far as I can tell, but Geasland seems to have no other writing credits to his name. In any case, Twins, which I would not count as a horror novel, strictly speaking, is not the greatest novel of all time, but it's still pretty good. For the most part, it sticks quite closely to the lives of the Marcus brothers as laid out by Rosenbaum and Edmiston -- including, crucially, the free-wheeling single life of Stewart as it compared to Cyril's restricted, as far as the twins were concerned, marriage -- but ramps up the sleaze by positing that the twins, named Michael and David Ross in the novel, had a lifelong desire, which is eventually succumbed to, to engage in homosexual incest. "You're not gonna find out" can lead those who'd like to find out to invent any number of theories. Or that gap can seem like a beacon to those who want to invent. Whatever the case was with Wood and Geasland and Twins, incest is what was landed on, and the resulting novel is rather powerfully unpleasant. Sex of all kinds factor into the book, and even drives the story. David is a pansexual sybarite, essentially, on top of being Luciferian in his sinister manipulations to lead Michael away from the normal life and into the life of hedonism that David thinks is their right, as twin geniuses who resemble in mind and body nobody else in the world.
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s, David Cronenberg was working on a novel called Roger Pagan, Gynecologist. The date on which this manuscript was begun, or conceived, is obscure, but based on how Serge Grunberg describes these early years of Cronenberg's creativity in David Cronenberg: Interveiws with Serge Grunberg, the idea, at the very least, for Roger Pagan, Gynecologist must have preceded the deaths of the Marcus twins, and therefore their newsworthiness, by at least a couple of years. So fortuitous, in a way, though Cronenberg wouldn't be able to make a film about any of these things -- and he would read about and become fascinated by the Marcus twins when news of their strange lives and deaths hit the news -- until 1988. To make things easier, he optioned the novel Twins, but that was just a formality, in a way. He didn't really adhere to Wood and Geasland's additions to the true story at all -- he chucked the incest, for example -- and veered away from the facts when they didn't interest him, which was often. His film, called Dead Ringers, like the Esquire article (though the number of suitable and commercially viable titles for such a story must be extremely small, and Dead Ringers at least suggests more of the content than Twins does), keeps only the broad strokes -- twins, drug abuse, and gynecology; lunatic sex is in there too, but Cronenberg being who he is I seriously doubt he needed Geasland and Wood to give him the idea -- and builds from there a film that stands now, along with The Fly, as a cornerstone of his current reputation as a major world filmmaker, no longer critically shunned, respected and embraced just as he mostly sheds (and I do believe this is a coincidence) his early genre interests.
Because in terms of genre, what in the world is Dead Ringers? One of the most fascinating things about the film is that its tone, and some of its energy, make it play out like a bleak drama made by someone who thought he was making a horror film. The twins, in this case named Beverly and Elliott Mantle and played ingeniously by Jeremy Irons, when performing surgery where red scrubs that appear to have been designed by a member of an alien blood cult, and late in the film, as Beverly's mind begins to rapidly corrode from a mixture of drugs, psychosexual mania induced by his unhealthy (but again, not incestuous) relationship with his brother and an uncontrollable jealousy connected to his tumultuous relationship with a patient named Claire (Genevieve Bujold) whom the brothers "share," he seeks out a local abstract sculptor (Stephen Lack) and commissions him to build, from Beverly's own designs, an array of new gynecological surgical instruments that wind up looking like ludicrous and medieval torture devices. But he doesn't then go on a murderous rampage with these things, and one deeply uncomfortable interaction with a patient is in fact based in part on something done by Cyril Marcus. As a matter of fact, much of the imagery that relates most directly to horror, of the Cronenberg variety, comes in the form of dream sequences. This marks a fairly major shift in the course of his films, and quite often from here on out the issues of the body that Cronenberg wants to deal with are approached from, or by, the mind -- not the brain, you understand. In Rabid, to grab one at random, the physicality, and corruption, of the body is all. In Dead Ringers the way these twins exist with and connect to each other is largely mental.
Then again, it is a big part of Dead Ringers -- and not so much Twins, and almost certainly not the Marcus brothers -- that what one of these brothers might do individually has an effect on the other. "You haven't fucked her until I've fucker her," Elliot says at one point. "You haven't done anything until I've done it too." This seems like a figure of speech at the moment, but by the end it has become less clear. In Chris Rodley's Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the filmmaker talks about the amazing studies that have been done on twins that reveal that twins that have been separated at a very young age often still develop the same interests, marry women with the same first name, and so on. On the topic of twins, Cronenberg has a number of interesting, strange things to say. "I feel as though I invented twins," he tells Grunsberg, and to Rodley:
In one way, Dead Ringers is conceptual science-fiction, the concept being "What if there could be identical twins?" Some might say, "But there are." But I'm suggesting that it's impossible, and let's look at them really closely. I can imagine a world in which identical twins are only a concept, like mermaids. The fact that Elliot and Beverly are identical twins is their evolution into something monstrous. They are creatures, as exotic as The Fly. So there's a double game there; the mind/body split is still very much on my mind (and possibly my body too), but here the body is separated into two parts. Twins tend to love Dead Ringers because it talks about stuff that no one else talks about. It's like seeing your home town on screen.
...The feeling is like an aquarium, as though these are strange exotic fish creatures...People find it extremely disturbing. The fact that they can't exactly say why -- there isn't much blood, etc. -- makes it more so. With They Fly you can say, "Yes, it was yucky. I had to turn my head. Other than that, it was neat."
I'll confess, it had never occurred to me to view Dead Ringers as a science fiction film, but with that now in mind, and not to imply I'd ever found it opaque, the thing opens up in almost shocking ways. Shocking because from that point of view, Dead Ringers is something completely new, something that takes a genre concept -- the core of the genre, in fact -- and putting it to use in a way no one else, to my knowledge, has ever done before. The way science fiction typically works, if you'll allow me to burrow right to the heart of it, is it imagines something that might one day conceivably exist, be it a scientific or social concept. What Cronenberg does is apply that same wonder -- and in science fiction "wonder" can mean something glorious or, as Cronenberg says, something monstrous -- to something that actually really does exist, and has always existed, and take the imaginative and intellectual position that it doesn't. Now, the world of the film is our own -- no one is shocked to learn of the existence of identical twins. Nevertheless, the Mantle twins are purely alien. The way they exist among other people is one thing, but the way they exist when they're alone together, that's something else again. They are different. They are, in fact, not entirely unlike the beings we get in the last third or so of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, who destroyed without malevolence but rather because they were the next step, and the previous step had to be swept away. The Mantle twins, to be sure, don't have their shit together anywhere near as well as Clarke's next evolutionary strain, and of course by the end of it all it's pretty clear that, reading the film as Cronenberg suggests we do, or might do, Nature will have to make some tweaks for the next go-round. But the first aquatic life that struggled to shore probably didn't last very long either.
Casting Jeremy Irons was not just the perfect choice, but doing it with another actor might have brought as much success as going ahead without a camera. Perhaps only David Bowie could have communicated the particular "more than human" nature of these brothers, but I doubt he could have made them each so specific without it ever seeming like a gimmick (and the methods Cronenberg uses to put Irons onscreen together with himself are entirely seamless; it's really amazing how good filmmaking can make you forget certain things). The specificity is perhaps shallow, in that you can break it down and say that Elliot is the confident, aloof, cold, smug, arrogant, all that stuff, brother, and Beverly is the the weaker one, easily led by Elliot, uncertain he's comfortable with certain moral choices that Elliot makes for them both. But indeed, this is why they don't survive -- together they form an imperfect organism, and had either one been born alone, as just a single entity, their chance for survival into old age (and to help propagate the species) would be much greater, no different than anyone else. Together, they are a creature, a new thing, a clumsy form that is above us, smarter as one than they'd be as two, but they're like a machine that's slipped a gear inside, and the thing is shredded as, and because, it's functioning.
And Cronenberg says twins like this thing. Though since I have no concept of what it's like to have an identical twin, I suppose even something as bleak as Dead Ringers can be a breath of fresh air if it truly explores what makes that relationship unlike any other. For the rest of us, though, what fascinates and disturbs about the film is rooted in Cronenberg's intellectual approach to genre ideas in a non-genre film. It makes Dead Ringers a film that has never existed before, even if it sometimes feels familiar -- there is a tone to it, on the surface, and an underlying I-don't-know-what, something that bubbles, but not from heat, from coldness, rather, somehow, something that stains everything else and makes it feel off. Makes it feel wrong.