Back in August, we caught wind early of an impending digitally remastered blu-ray release version of David Cronenberg’s critically acclaimed cult horror classic Dead Ringers, a film which like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs can’t seem to maintain a consistent distributor as rights continually shifted hands over the years from Criterion to Warner Brothers and now Shout Factory. The story of two identical twin gynecologists (Jeremy Irons in top form) whose sense of identity is shaken by the arrival of a young actress (Genevieve Bujold) who begins an affair with both men is familiar to countless fans, yet only one edition up to this point seemed to give the cult horror gem the attention it so deserved. Despite there being a French blu-ray edition released in 2012, the disc was only in 1080i interlaced and only bore 2.0 surround sound, not to mention it and the now out-of-print Warner Brothers DVD were mastered in the US theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1 as opposed to the director’s preferred European aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Well now, fans can rejoice (mostly) over this newly remastered collector’s edition released by Shout Factory which like their recently released edition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 bears the distinction of including on two discs two separate transfers, one truer to the theatrical version and one preferred by the director. With Dead Ringers, we get both the standard US theatrical version at 1.78:1 and the director’s preferred 1.66:1 version. Now the question is, does this new collector’s edition measure up to the still solid package Criterion put out back in 1998?
The first in what would become an ongoing collaborative working relationship between Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, Dead Ringers was shot initially in 35mm at the 1.33:1 Academy Ratio with the intention of various masking for worldwide theatrical venues. Generally the US versions for films like, say, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining were exhibited in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 whereas in Europe the image was either presented open matted at 1.33:1 or slightly matted down to 1.66:1, which results now in pillarboxing on the sides of an HDTV image. In the case of Dead Ringers, the US version went into theaters at 1.78:1 where in Europe the image was framed at 1.66:1, which tends to be Cronenberg’s preferred aspect ratio on many of his other films anyway. Up to this point only the now out-of-print Criterion Collection edition included a transfer of the film per Cronenberg’s preference while subsequent DVD editions went with the US version instead. For Shout Factory’s edition, the first disc includes the 1.78:1 version while the second includes a more robust and polished 2K transfer of the 1.66:1 version. Comparatively, the 1.66:1 version is the way to go for a number of reasons. While both versions present a clean image with healthy grain and contrast levels with moderate color saturation, the 1.66:1 version is slightly cleaner with greater resolution and a more stable image. Customary to most 35mm films, there’s a slight image wobble from the top to bottom which is far more noticeable in the 1.78:1 version and the additional headroom on the 1.66:1 version shows more picture information on all four sides. Ultimately take your pick but for my money the 1.66:1 version is the better transfer and truer to the artist’s intentions.
Dead Ringers was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo 2.0 and though the film has received a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on the Warner Brothers DVD and now a DTS-HD 5.1 surround mix on the Shout Factory disc, this is one of those films where all the releases tend to sound the same with little in the way of stereophonic surround separation or audio effects being rechanneled to the rear speakers. Howard Shore’s mournful score comes through clean without any distortion and sounds far more polished than the Criterion edition and the DTS-HD rendering does provide a fuller dispersal of the soundtrack. Still, Dead Ringers is mostly dialogue driven with much of the sound directed to the front. Listeners might be inclined to go with the 5.1 mix over the 2.0 one but for my money they sound about the same.
Now here is where we start to nitpick over how definitive this Shout Factory disc really is. Criterion’s solid laserdisc edition included a complete copy of one of Cronenberg’s earlier student films, Crimes of the Future, included in the extras before losing the rights to the picture and dropping it from their subsequent DVD port. The Criterion sported an audio commentary by David Cronenberg, actor Jeremy Irons, editor Ron Sanders and production designer Carol Spier as well as the original version of the opening title credits sequence before the name was changed from Twins to Dead Ringers and a vintage original press kit. For the Warner Brothers DVD, all the extras were dropped in favor of a new audio commentary exclusively with Jeremy Irons. For the new Shout Factory, there’s some give and take as far as what’s included here. There’s a new audio commentary with film historian William Beard as well as the Irons commentary from the Warner Brothers DVD, but the director commentary from the Criterion seems to be missing. Also gone is the original version of the opening credits, instead replacing it with four new interviews created specifically for this edition including with Peter Suschitzky, Heidi Von Palleske, Stephen Lack and visual effects artist Gordon Smith. The vintage press kit on the Criterion is also included here.
While we lose some of the extras included on the Criterion disc, we get two robust transfers, clean audio and a wealth of newly created extras on the second disc, rounding out this Shout Factory release as a strong one but with some minor reservations. While true to the look of the film in theaters, had this been a Criterion disc, I’m curious as to whether or not David Cronenberg would have drastically altered the look of the film like he did with Scanners and The Brood from how they looked theatrically to how he prefers them to look now. Though boasting a new 2K digital master I’m still not sure if this disc was in fact supervised and approved by Cronenberg and the lack of a Cronenberg audio commentary seems unthinkable. That said, there’s still enough here to satisfy die-hard fans and this is easily the best the film has looked on home video to date. Compared to Shout Factory’s recent disc for John Carpenter’s The Thing which is far and away the most definitive home video release yet from a technical and supplemental standpoint, their remastered edition of Dead Ringers is satisfactory but not a knockout which I suppose is more than enough for now.
- Andrew Kotwicki