The Canadian director David Cronenberg has perhaps never loomed larger over our culture than he has in the past year. In 2022, the body-horror pioneer released Crimes of the Future, his first film since 2014’s Maps to the Stars. Starring Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux as performance artists who carry out gruesome surgeries for an enraptured public, the film was a return to the queasy subject matter that had made Cronenberg’s name, after two decades during which he had dabbled in crime drama and Hollywood satire before taking eight years off.
Beyond that, the director’s aesthetics are now to be found everywhere, but the copious imitations mostly fail to live up to the standards he set. The over-praised Palme D’Or winner Titane (2021), directed by Julia Ducournau, barely hid its mimicry of Cronenberg’s 1995 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash. Ducournau’s previous film, the cannibalistic coming-of-age movie Raw (2016), was more accomplished but still came off as Cronenberg-Lite. Meanwhile, Cronenberg’s son Brandon has chosen to work in the same genre, producing films—most recently, the bewilderingly cold Infinity Pool (2023)—that feel like little more than his father’s aesthetics gone digital and stripped of the philosophical density that characterize the elder Cronenberg’s oeuvre.
Leave it to the streaming executives to debase Cronenberg’s vision even further, as Amazon has now done with a disastrous remake of his 1988 masterpiece, Dead Ringers. It’s not the only 1980s cult classic to be given the streaming remake treatment lately: Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo and Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction have both suffered the same unnecessary fate. Neither of these poorly received reboots, however, comes close to the offense committed by Dead Ringers 2.0.
The failure of the series starts with its guiding conceit. Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers is about twin brother gynecologists—Elliot and Beverly Mantle, both portrayed by Jeremy Irons—and yields much of its tension from the allure of distinctly male perversion and professional transgression, and from the protagonists’ aestheticized obsession with the alienness of female anatomy. As Beverly puts it at one point, “there’s nothing the matter with the instrument, it’s the body. The woman’s body is all wrong!”
The remake replaces the Mantle brothers with twin female gynecologists, played over-theatrically by Rachel Weisz. Whereas the male Elliot and Beverly Mantle of the film are fascinated with the female body to the point of paraphilia—even to a kind of wretched autogynephilia—Weisz’s female Mantles have female bodies, and as such identify with and feel protective toward them, obliterating the original narrative’s opaque anxiety about female anatomical otherness.
This loss comes across most clearly in the show’s glaring omission of the Mantle twins’ obsession with what they call “mutant reproductive organs.” In the film, the gentler Mantle, Beverly, becomes sexually fixated on the actress Claire (Geneviève Bujold) largely due to her mutated womb, incapable of nurturing a child. Beverly describes Claire’s malformed insides as “beautiful,” and after Claire breaks off an affair with him (having learned that she was deceived into sleeping with both twins without realizing it), he spirals out of control, designing “instruments for operating on mutant women” and having a sculptor manufacture them.
The collision between medical research and a morbid aesthetic fascination with the female body is absent—as it must be—from the new series. In the show, Claire is reimagined as Genevieve, a mixed-race woman with a healthy womb who wants a child but struggles to conceive. The female Mantle twins’ purpose in life seems to be improving reproductive medicine. A noble cause, no doubt—but replacing the perverse vocation of Cronenberg’s Mantles with this more socially acceptable mission eliminates much of what gives the story its disturbing appeal.
There is still a little bit of madness in the subject matter of the new Dead Ringers. For one thing, the female Mantle twins are no ordinary fertility specialists: They are undertaking a bizarre experiment of engineering lab-grown fetuses. But the reasons for this pursuit, again, are ultimately altruistic—providing infertile women with babies. The fascination of Irons’s Mantles was that they were deranged geniuses, period, not well-intentioned deranged geniuses.
Amazon’s series likewise abandons the film’s rich and evocative exploration of sexual difference, which encompasses not only the protagonists’ relation to their patients and lovers, but to each other. Cronenberg’s Elliot and Beverly Mantle represent the male and the female aspects of a fractured whole: “The truth, anticipated by Beverly’s parents—or whoever named him—was that he was the female part of the yin/yang whole,” wrote Cronenberg in his book Cronenberg on Cronenberg (1992).
Weisz’s Mantle twins, in contrast, are entirely different beings, less two parts of a whole than lookalikes with diametrically opposed personalities. The lurid notion of the twins as a couple is dismissed in the first scene of the pilot, in which someone asks the twins whether they enjoy having threesomes. The twins’ response sharply negates any peculiar sexual connections between them. “Oh yes, I just love to fuck my sister,” retorts Weisz sarcastically, seeming to dismiss the idea as merely a pervert’s grotesque fantasy.
But just this disturbing incestuous fantasy is central to Cronenberg’s film. As the director himself remarked, “the idea that Beverly is the wife of the couple is unacceptable to him. He can’t accept that they are a couple.” In Irons’s performance of the two roles, the connection between the Mantle twins is so close that it is at times as if their bodies are conjoined, floating together blissfully in an unseen womb. They share everything, including sexual partners. The twins in the new series do not. The show only faintly alludes to the film’s transgressive subject matter when we see Weisz’s Elliot at a bar chatting up the infertile actress, Genevieve—but never sleeping with her.
As all of this suggests, the purpose of the reboot is to sanitize Cronenberg’s unsettling vision and bring it in line with contemporary liberal culture—to make it into a story that, as one reviewer approvingly puts it, “tackles medical discrimination and misogyny in a way that’s heartbreaking and honest.” The show takes pains to pander to contemporary cultural pieties. At one point, for instance, Elliot inexplicably hallucinates the history of America’s first gynecologist and the black slave whom he experimented upon—a scene so hamfisted and so jarringly imposed, one has to assume it was done merely to satisfy some sort of diversity checklist required by Amazon bosses.
In a film scene awash with mediocre Cronenberg knock-offs, Amazon’s Dead Ringers is a new low. The director’s vision is reduced to a marketing device for a piece of hollow discourse bait. I hope he at least got a perversely large paycheck out of it.