Dark bedroom or alien landscape? 1:00:00 into David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), the two are more or less the same. The bedroom belongs to Beverly Mantle, half of the twin gynecologists played here by Jeremy Irons. In the absence of his actress girlfriend, Beverly is descending into a lethargic, overmedicated hell. As this shot begins, he fumbles along the bedside table, groping at the watch before locating his pill bottle, then turning away and raising it to his mouth.
Seconds later, the shot fades to black with its focus squarely on the watch. By now, Beverly is a mere background detail, his face nearly abstracted. You can make out impressions of an eye, ear, and nose, but they could just as easily be tricks of the meager light. His addiction is a sarcophagus—or, given Cronenberg’s obsession with biological transformation, a cocoon. Just as Beverly’s receding into his own drug-induced delusions, he’s also receding into the cold, blue night.
This leaves us with the gold watch curled up in the foreground, shadow looping beneath it. Under the subtle lighting, its curve and texture make it look less like an inanimate object, and more like some uneasy compromise between organic and metal: like a beetle’s shell, or Dalí’s melting watches, or even Videodrome’s “new flesh.” Although it’s just a watch, the shot’s diffused twilight and shallow focus imbue it with surprising potency. They change it from an upscale accoutrement into an agent of horror.
It’s a sly visual strategy. By reducing Irons to a vague blur, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky shift the brunt of the image’s menace onto the watch. More likely than not, they were inspired by Citizen Kane and its representation of Susan’s suicide attempt. Both shots share the sinister bedside table, but in Dead Ringers that detailed bedroom is condensed into just two layers, with the frame dominated and divided by the watch.
It’s an ominous, understated composition. Since it’s so pervaded by darkness, the string of blue light that runs through the watch, cleaving the shot in half, is endowed with eerie power. The surface, intended to look sleek and modern, seems sterile and predatory by night. The room is entombing Beverly and abetting his addiction; his surroundings are aligned with the disease that’s eating at him. Nowhere—inside or outside his body—is safe.