Twins are a well-established feature of the horror genre, and understandably so. Is there anything quite so unsettling to us singular folks as two people who appear more or less identical, but at the same time are still separate entities? Growing up, I had two sets of identical twins in my family (a pair of aunts and a pair of cousins), and while I never found them weird or scary at all, I was always fascinated as to what it would be like to have a clone of yourself living in the same house as you. Would you pull all sorts of switcheroos and other twinly shenanigans? Be able to communicate in your own invented language, or even telepathically? Murder a person and then accuse your twin, just for shits and giggles? The possibilities are staggering.
Obviously I’m not the only person who is intrigued by this stuff, judging by the plethora of horror films that feature creepy twins in either a central or peripheral role. Twins in film are generally made even more disturbing by the addition of some sort of psychic link between the pair, or perhaps a kind of bizarre incestuous relationship, or the designation of one twin as good and the other evil. A short list of films that make good use of this motif would include The Shining, City of Lost Children, The Dark Half, Basket Case, The Other, Twins of Evil, The Black Room, Jack’s Back, and, of course, the twin (ha!) subjects of today’s post.
Two of the best films in the twin-horror canon, I think we can all agree, are Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Both feature a profoundly screwed-up set of identical twins played by the same actor (Margot Kidder in Sisters and Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers), both bring up some uncomfortably creepy psychosexual issues between the siblings, and both feature a sort of good/evil dichotomy between the twins, with Sisters being the more obvious example of this trope.
Sisters was not Brian De Palma’s first film, but it was the first of the fantastic Hitchcockian thrillers that he would become so renowned for, and it already shows a director with a surefooted grasp of his material. He certainly got a bravura performance out of Margot Kidder, who is absolutely astonishing and wholly believable as French-Canadian model Danielle Breton, complete with spot-on accent. Early in the film, Danielle appears on a New York game show where she meets handsome ad salesman Philip (Lisle Wilson) and charms her way into a date. The pair seem to be hitting it off, though there is the small matter of Danielle’s ex-husband Emil (William Finley) following them around, and then there’s that large, unsightly scar on Danielle’s thigh. But love finds a way, sort of, and Danielle and Philip have an enjoyable night back at Danielle’s apartment in Staten Island.
The next morning, though, things look quite a bit stranger. Philip awakens to what sounds like Danielle arguing with another woman in French. She disappears into the bathroom and scarfs some red pills, then tells Philip that she would really appreciate it if he could just pop down to the pharmacy and get her some more of the drugs, pretty please. He asks what the deal was with the French arguing, and Danielle tells him that her twin sister Dominique has come over to the apartment because it is their birthday, and Dominique is upset that Philip is there. He feels bad and offers to leave, but Danielle tells him to hang around. He agrees to come back after his pharmacy errand, and leaves the apartment. While he’s out, he spots a bakery, and being a considerate kinda guy, he ducks in there and buys a cake for Danielle and Dominique’s birthday.
Meanwhile, Danielle is back at the apartment and doesn’t appear to be doing too well. She’s screaming at someone on the phone that she’s out of pills, she’s writhing around on the bathroom floor as if she’s in terrible pain; the whole thing is just not looking terribly kosher. When Philip returns, he finds Danielle (or at least he thinks it’s Danielle) sleeping on the hide-a-bed in the living room. He quietly lights all the candles on the cake, gets a knife out of the kitchen to cut it with, then sets the cake down on the bed in front of the sleeping “Danielle.”
Wrong move, Philip.
Poor Philip gets ventilated pretty effectively, but before he dies, he manages to crawl to a window and write “help” on it in blood. This turn of events is witnessed by a neighbor across the courtyard, Grace Collier, who happens to be a journalist working for some two-bit newspaper but aspiring to much greater things. Said aspirations had previously prompted her to write a whole newspaper series on police corruption, so as you can imagine, when she calls the cops to report the murder in her apartment building, they’re reluctant to listen to her. They eventually show up, grudgingly, and she argues with them in the lobby. Meanwhile, utilizing one of his beloved split-screen effects, De Palma shows us that Danielle is apparently shocked at the carnage that Dominique has wrought. Her ex-husband Emil, who of course had been watching her the entire time, snaps into action to help cover up the murder. They roll Philip’s body into the hide-a-bed, clean up the blood streaks on the floors and windows, and generally get everything spic-and-span. By the time the cops come knocking on Danielle’s door with a squawking Grace in tow, there is no apparent trace of the murder at all, other than a single blot of blood on the back of the sofa that the annoyed cops don’t even notice. Grace tries to sneak around and do her own investigation, but the cops keep getting more and more pissed off because they don’t see any evidence that a murder has taken place. Grace plays the racial angle, accusing the cops of not caring about the victim because he was a black man killed by a white woman. As she’s snooping around, she finds the birthday cake with both sisters’ names on it in the refrigerator, and tries to bring it out to show the cops in order to claim that the charming Danielle is covering up for a twin sister who is not present. Wouldn’t you know, it, though, Grace slips on the just-cleaned floor and drops the cake before the cops can see what it said. Heh heh.
The remainder of the film has Grace bound and determined to nail Danielle for the murder, even going so far as to hire a private detective (played by Charles Durning) to break into the woman’s apartment and later follow a moving truck that took away the telltale sofa the day after the murder. During Grace’s investigation, she discovers that Danielle’s twin Dominique had actually been a conjoined twin (hence Danielle’s scar), but had died a year previously after the surgery to separate the women. So now we understand that Danielle has taken on the mantle of both the good twin and the evil, and without her pills, she manifests Dominique’s psychopathic tendencies without being aware that she is doing so.
The creepiest part of this film comes toward the end, as De Palma takes us in an unexpected direction. Grace is following Danielle and Emil, and she ends up at some sort of open-door psychiatric hospital out in the country. She watches through a window as Emil drugs Danielle with a syringe. Grace goes into the hospital and tries to use the phone to call the cops, but she is thwarted by staff and by the crazy patients. Emil appears and tells a staffer that Grace’s name is Margaret, and that she is a new patient. Grace, of course, violently protests that she is crazy, but like a dumb ass, she has left her identification in her car, so no one believes her, and the more she protests, the crazier she seems. Emil takes her away, drugs her, and hypnotizes her, giving her a post-hypnotic suggestion that she saw no body and no murder.
There then follows a very disturbing sequence wherein a drugged Grace has a dream in which she stands in for the insane Dominique, reliving the trials of the conjoined twins’ separation a year earlier. She sees herself on a hospital bed in an operating theater, and as she glances over, she sees that she is attached to Danielle.
Emil is hovering over Danielle lovingly, and the two kiss and make out while Grace/Dominique sulks on one side of the bed. “Make her go away,” Danielle begs Emil, and then Grace looks around to see all these freaky-ass looking people in the operating theater, passing a cleaver from hand to hand. Turns out that the twins were ultimately separated because Danielle was miscarrying and would have died if her sister was not detached. It’s all very nightmarish and disturbing, and it all ends up with Emil chopping the sisters apart with the cleaver, and then Danielle killing Emil with a scalpel and freely confessing to his murder (but not Philip’s), and Grace being rescued from the hospital by the police, though the post-hypnotic suggestion Emil gave her stays in effect, and she keeps vehemently insisting that there was never any murder and no body. The final, somewhat farcical shot is of the sofa containing Philip’s body sitting at an abandoned train station.
As good as Sisters is, however, it can’t begin to approach the skin-crawling weirdness of the quintessential creepy-twin movie, Dead Ringers. David Cronenberg, of course, is the undisputed master of squicky sexual perversion and gross-out body horror, his particular fascination lying in the myriad ways the body can go horrifically wrong from within, through parasitical infection (Shivers), disease (Rabid), disfigurement (Crash), techno-biological enhancement (Videodrome, eXistenZ) or some other type of bizarre transformation (The Fly).
Dead Ringers, though, focuses less on the physical and more on the psychological (though there are plenty of uncomfortable Cronenberg flourishes in the form of gynecological instruments for “mutant women”).
Jeremy Irons turns in a staggering (and award-winning) performance as twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle; his portrayal of the two characters is so effective that the viewer can ALWAYS tell immediately which twin is which, even though they are both played by the same person. Beverly is bookish and sensitive, while Elliot is cocky and borderline sociopathic. Despite their differing personalities, though, the pair are inseparably, creepily attached to each other, living together in a swank apartment and often taking one another’s place with no one around them being the wiser. “Listen. You haven’t had any experience until I’ve had it too,” Elliot tells Beverly at one point, and as the movie progresses, we see the sort of twisted dynamic these two have going on, and witness the havoc it wreaks around them.
The famous Mantle twins are lauded as geniuses in their field, showered with awards and accolades. They own a world-renowned fertility clinic in Toronto, and it is here that they meet the agent of their eventual unraveling: a beautiful, tragic actress named Claire Niveau (Geneviéve Bujold), who is in town shooting a movie. Claire desperately wants a baby, but has had no luck at any of the other fertility clinics she has visited because she is the possessor of a rare mutation, a “trifurcated cervix.” The Mantle clinic is her last hope to get pregnant, but unfortunately, even they can do nothing to help her, although Elliot, cad that he is, is quite happy to seduce her and then pass her on to Beverly when he grows tired of her. Claire, who is from out of town, has no idea that Elliot and Beverly are two separate people, and becomes involved with what she thinks is one sexy (if vaguely schizo) doctor.
Later, Claire is at lunch with a friend who has heard about her dalliance and asks her which of the Mantles she’s been seeing. Claire is shocked at the news that there are two of these freakazoids, and figures out pretty quickly that she’s been unknowingly acting as the gooey filling in a Mantle-twin Oreo. On her next date with Beverly, she asks to meet Elliot. He balks at the idea, but she insists, and in the next scene, we see her sitting down with both of them in a restaurant, clearly ready to tear them both new assholes. “There’s really no telling you apart, is there?” she says as she looks from one to the other of them. Elliot makes a joke about being a bit taller, and Claire says there’s a better way to tell them apart. “Beverly’s the sweet one, and you’re the shit.” She then tells them that she’s been through some creepy things before, but this really takes the whole perverted enchilada, and then she asks them if they have a whole routine going, where Beverly softens up their dupes with his sensitivity and then leaves the girls to be finished off by the cold Elliot, but Elliot lives up to his reputation by saying, cruelly, “Actually I fucked you first, but I passed you to my baby brother because you weren’t very good.”
Claire throws a drink in Beverly’s face and storms out. Elliot thinks it’s all very amusing, but then he notices that Beverly is crying. Yes, Bev has actually fallen for Claire and is heartbroken at what has transpired. Later on, he is able to convince her to give him another chance, but after she leaves town after the movie she is working on is finished shooting, Beverly spirals into depression and sinks further into the drug addiction he’d been exploring with Claire. He begins having delusions about mutant women, inspired by Claire’s cervical mutation, and has frightening-looking tools commissioned so that he can ostensibly work on these women. After attacking one of his patients with one of the tools, Beverly is suspended along with his twin. Elliot tries to straighten Beverly out, but only ends up getting addicted to drugs himself. Claire comes back and Beverly seems to get his shit together, but now Elliot is screwed. In a final, chilling sequence, the twins celebrate a “birthday” with cake and ice cream, Beverly kills Elliot with one of the gynecological tools in a symbolic gesture to “separate the Siamese twins,” and then it transpires that Beverly actually cannot live without his other half, and he dies in his brother’s arms. Creepy, creepy shit.
Twins, I suspect, are effective in horror movies because as natural döppelgangers, they can encompass the good/evil, Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy in a very direct, compact way, either as both good and evil fighting it out in the same body (as with Sisters), or being split between two “half-people” who cannot survive as individuals (as in Dead Ringers). In any case, I’m sure the twin trope isn’t going away any time soon, as it’s such an easy method to explore universal themes of the light and dark side of human nature. Hope you’ve enjoyed this two-fer post, and as always, until next time, this is the Goddess (and her evil twin) signing off.