When David Cronenberg wrote the film Dead Ringers back in 1988, he credited the basis of the story to the novel Twins, written by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. The truth is, only the concept of psycho-sexual twin gynecologists was taken from Twins—while the true story actually stems from nearly identical real-life events that occurred just two years prior. Following a short obituary in The New York Times about the mysterious death of twin doctors named Cyril and Stewart Marcus, a larger story ran in the March 1976 issue of Esquire, including interviews with others who practiced with them. The headline? Dead Ringers.
Nearly every aspect of his film follows the Esquire story. Dead Ringers centers around Beverly and Elliot Mantle, twin gynecologists who develop barbiturate addictions. Following malpractice and several attempts to clean themselves up, the brothers were both found dead in one of their messy Park Avenue apartments. While overdose looms over the events of their death as the most probable cause, the actual case remains a complete mystery to this day. “I don’t mind telling you we have a major medical mystery on our hands,” acting Chief Medical Examiner Dominick DiMaio told Esquire back when the story first ran in 1976. “We’ve exhausted all the regular possibilities and now we’re going for rare things—exotic is the word, I guess.”
The twins either died from drugs, had seizures due to withdrawal, or entered into some unknowable suicide pact. Fellow doctors at the time proposed a kind of Columbo killer mystery method that involved injecting poisons into the body in places where you would never find it, like a hemorrhoid. “I will tell you something: any smart physician could dispose of himself by a mechanism which could never be discovered by anyone, including his insurance companies,” one of the doctors cryptically explained. “I have no evidence, but I know the way I’d do it if I were going to… I can tell you this: you’re not gonna find out.”
In the Cronenberg film, the director provides an ending of his own. One brother accidentally kills the other with freaky, self-made gynecologist tools. (It’s an idea he would later expand upon in his latest film, Crimes of the Future). The other twin, shocked and in a daze, leaves the apartment—before returning and dying from drug withdrawal in his brother’s arms. The two also make frequent references before their death to Chang and Eng Bunker, the original famous “Siamese Twins” from the 1800s. The inclusion comes directly from the Esquire story, which was reminded of this account: “When Eng was awakened and told that Chang had died, Eng sighed and said in a resigned fashion, Then I am going also. And he did, although there was nothing physically wrong with him.”
Now, 35 years later, Dead Ringers has return to the screen. Rachel Weisz stars as the gender-swapped twins in the rebooted limited series, which was made without Cronenberg’s involvement. The six-episode series dropped on Friday, April 21, 2023 on Amazon Prime Video—with a different ending, entirely.
Josh Rosenberg is an Assistant Editor at Esquire, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day. His past work can be found at Spin, CBR, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com.