David Cronenberg may be a master of visceral, corporal horror, but with Dead Ringers, he demonstrated an equal mastery over the subliminal. The 1988 film follows Beverly and Elliot Mantle, identical twins who share an affinity for female reproductive anatomy. The Mantles have dedicated their lives to studying women, treating their infertility, and exploring their pleasure and pain — but Dead Ringers isn’t really about any of that. Cronenberg keeps the focus of the film completely on Beverly and Elliot, on their precarious equilibrium, and their freaky Frankenstein games. The twins may be steeped in a world full of women, but there’s not much room for women’s voices in the grand scheme. At best, women are but fascinating sexual mutants to the Mantles. At worst, they’re dolls to experiment on. Either way, they’re a means to an end, so that’s the role they must play in the film.
All of that works fine for the Cronenberg film, but Prime Video’s Dead Ringers remake exists on a completely different plane. The six-episode series is teeming with female voices, starting with its two leads. Instead of Jeremy Irons in the dual role, the Prime series, created by Alice Birch, swaps him out for Rachel Weisz. Dead Ringers is still a portrait of two identical twins with a deep, unsettling bond. Their twisted ambition remains deliciously intact as well. But through Weisz, Birch, and a handful of female writers and directors, the story of two scientists who once played god with women’s bodies becomes a bracing dissertation on what it is to be a woman. It’s scalpel-sharp, darkly funny, and at times, smattered in blood.
The Mantles’ story begins harmlessly enough, beginning with Beverly and Elliot as two overworked doctors in one overrun New York hospital. “We’re as close to perfection as you can get in this field,” Beverly insists — but an unforgiving system is the one thing standing between the Mantles and the flawless results they crave. Delivering a child is still one of the most dangerous practices on Earth, one of the most expensive, and one of the most punishing. Women have bled out just hours after giving birth, right before their eyes. Babies have died in their arms. Beverly wants to stop that from happening. Founding a women’s clinic is the fastest way to do so.
Unfortunately, it will take more than good intentions to open her “Barbie birthing dreamhouse.” It’ll take money, $16 million worth, and Rebecca Parker (Jennifer Ehle) is one of the few plutocrats who can dish out those funds without batting an eye. Rebecca is interested only in science, and in making even more money. Beverly’s bleeding-heart approach is of absolutely no use to her. Elliot’s interest in gene editing, however — in flouting the laws of nature to create life in a test tube — that’s something she can use.
While Elliot courts Rebecca, Beverly falls hard for Genevieve (Britne Oldford), a gorgeous young actress and one-time patient. Their blossoming romance quickly becomes the one part of Beverly and Elliot’s shared life that is suddenly off-limits to the latter. Naturally, this drives Elliot crazy. “You haven’t had it unless I've had it,” she reminds Beverly — and that tells us just about everything we need to know about their dynamic. Elliot, the more voracious and willful of the two, has always been in control. It’s only through Genevieve that Beverly can see their twisted partnership for what it is. But codependence has become a way of life for the Mantles: how can one become self-sufficient without the other self-destructing?
As the Mantles each begin to unravel, so too does the streamlined plot. That gives Birch and co. permission to get even weirder with the story, and expand their scope of the female experience. The world of women’s healthcare is almost a character unto itself in Dead Ringers, a complex ecosystem that also serves as a springboard for each and every subplot. From infertility, to postpartum depression, to female pleasure, to menopause, few topics are off limits. The series navigates it all through loosely connected interludes: between grounded, “eat the rich” satire and Antebellum-inspired ghost stories, each episode builds on its foundation to staggering effect.
Admittedly though, it can be a lot. Dead Ringers is determined to explore the entire spectrum of womanhood, and while each effort serves as a showcase for the diverse supporting cast, the main storyline might suffer for it. The Mantles’ joint descent into madness doesn’t stick the landing in the way Cronenberg’s film does, but Weisz’s performance might be just enough to pick up the slack. She demonstrates an endearing naïveté as Beverly, and as the ravenous Elliot, she nearly steals the show from herself. Watching Weisz work is a delightful distraction from the parts of Dead Ringers that don’t really work, though they’re few and far between.
Even at its worst, the series remains a taut, thrilling descent into the Monstrous Feminine — one that will undoubtedly find its place in the horror hall of fame.