Fiction is perpetually preoccupied with doppelgangers–doubles or evil twins. See almost any David Lynch movie, the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King’s The Dark Half, Dostoyevsky’s novels, and even Back to the Future Part II for evidence of spooky (and sometimes humorous) duality. In doppelganger films, obsession reigns as king (or queen?): obsession with another person, preoccupation with oneself, fixation on the past. In film and TV, women in particular get a good dose of the creepy doppelganger action. For instance, take this week’s opener The Roommate, which looks to be a campy and ridiculous PG-13 take on Single White Female.
In The Roommate (a movie whose title I can’t even think without hearing this in my head), an every-American college assigns Sara (“Friday Night Lights” starlet Minka Kelly) and Rebecca (“Gossip Girl”‘s Leighton Meester) as roommates. After what I’m sure will be a happy, we’re-the-best-of-friends! montage, Rebecca goes a mite bonkers over Sara, attacking Sara’s friends and doing something insane that falls between “protecting” Sara and stealing her life. These are all things we’ve seen before; the ladies featured in stalker/doppelganger movies and TV suffer from obsessions and dysfunctions unlike any other, and, well, it’s hard to forget them.
For this week’s Listicle, Dan Fields and I (Julia Rhodes!) are focusing on flicks featuring females in potential peril at the hands of their crazy doppelgangers; dames in duplicate and ladies seeing double.
Single White Female (dir. Barbet Schroeder, 1992)
Any list of lady-centric doppelganger movies has to include Single White Female. Any list of movies loosely based around the plot of The Roommate must begin with Single White Female. The two are unmistakably similar in subject matter, but then it’s almost twenty years later, so cue the rehash of old plots.
When Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda) breaks up with her boyfriend, she seeks a like-minded single lady for a roommate. Enter Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who at first seems too good to be true. But then Hedy starts to creep into the edges of Allison’s personal life: when Allison stays out late, Hedy acts like a spurned lover. When Hedy gets mad, she throws their puppy out the window (!). Hedy eventually cuts her hair in the exact same (horribly ugly early-90s red poof) style as Allison. She jumps into bed with Allison’s boyfriend. Hedy has no particular identity of her own, so she takes on Allie’s.
Eventually everything culminates in a violent, fetishistic torture scene. The movie very clearly pits woman against woman: despite the failed attempts of the various men in Allie’s life to intervene, the final battle takes place between Allie and Hedy. Hedy utilizes that age-old symbol of dangerous physical femininity, the stiletto heel, to wreak havoc on Allie’s boyfriend–and the metaphor isn’t lost on savvy audiences.
The movie’s a cult classic because it is so very dated–and such a great symbol of the early ’90s. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s role in Single White Female is still one of her most recognizable because, well, it’s particularly horrifying when a beautiful woman perpetrates ugly acts of violence–and because Leigh plays women with issues so very well. While it is no Oscar-nominated, classic film, it’s certainly worth checking out if you haven’t before.
Silent Hill (dir. Christophe Gans, 2006)
(Before I begin: let us not speak of how the movie differs from the games, okay?)
Writer Roger Avary loves his material disturbing. He’s responsible for the stories behind Pulp Fiction and the screenplays based on two of Bret Easton Ellis’s novels, The Rules of Attraction and Glitterati. Then Avary wrote a screenplay based on one of the spookiest video games I’ve ever attempted to play (this lady is not a gamer): Silent Hill. While the end result is iffy at best, it’s a damned good-looking B-movie, and a fascinating horror flick because the only male characters are completely unnecessary.
When Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) becomes worried for her adopted daughter Sharon’s (Jodelle Ferland, creepy little bugger) health, Rose takes Sharon back to the town where she was born. Unfortunately, Silent Hill is abandoned due to the coal fires that have been burning beneath its surface for over thirty years. After Rose wrecks the car evading police, she has to search for Sharon, who somehow disappeared into the churning, ash-laden fog of Silent Hill. This is where the movie really veers off track: Rose, Sharon, and everyone they encounter are somehow trapped in a kind of purgatory due to the fact that a religious cult burned a child alive years ago.
Ferland, with her spooky oildrop eyes and sheath of dark hair, appears to Rose throughout the film, but she’s not really Sharon. She’s the apparition of Alessa, the tortured child whose burned body resides somewhere beneath Silent Hill. In this context, the supernatural-style doppelganger symbolizes a figurative dissociation from one’s past horrors–and in fact there are two Alessas, one evil and one just plain pissed off. Okay, so, in trying to write about the plot of this movie I realize just how convoluted and ridiculous it is, and that despite multiple viewings I’m still not sure what actually happened. There are monsters!
What’s really cool is the fact that Avary’s first draft of the script included not one man. In Avary’s version of Silent Hill, women play victim, villain, and everything between. Only later were totally impotent and unnecessary roles added for Sean Bean (as Rose’s husband) and Kim Coates (as a police officer). From fiercely protective Rose to zealous Christabella (Alice Krige), from tough cop Cybil (Laurie Holden) to the Dark Nurses, women play the most important roles–and respond brutally to violations real and imagined. I can get behind that–not to mention the sheer scare factor of Pyramid Head, the Gray Child, and every other terrifying creature in this movie. (Also cool? The fact that Silent Hill is based on Centralia, Pennsylvania, under which coal fires really have been burning for forty years.)
The Black Dahlia (dir. Brian De Palma, 2006)
Apparently 2006 was a strong year for dark-haired doppelgangers. The Black Dahlia is based on a brilliantly written novel by James Ellroy, and De Palma’s tendency toward Hitchcockian themes and cinematography (“tendency toward” is a polite way to put it) made him a strong choice to helm the flick. Despite a pretty good cast (Hilary Swank, Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johanson, and Aaron Eckhart) the movie is no winner.
The real-life case of “Black Dahlia” Elizabeth Short’s murder in 1947 is intensely fascinating, and will likely remain unsolved forever (due to a lengthy morbid streak, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the facts and speculations surrounding the case). Ellroy’s novel is beautifully written, its language so dense and rhythmic it’s hard to put down. It follows boxer-cop Bucky Bleichert (played by Hartnett), his partner Lee Blanchard (Eckhart), and the two women who circulate around them as they investigate and obsess over the Dahlia. While Lee’s on-off girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johanson, whipping out her bombshell the way she does best) is a relatively well-adjusted woman, mysterious Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) meanders into dangerous circles and takes on the Dahlia’s signature style.
Short (played in the film by Mia Kirshner) was an actress-wannabe who starred in a few dirty movies, slept with a lot of sailors, made her landlords and roommates irate, and wore almost entirely black–hence the posthumous nickname. She was the epitome of a troubled, fallen woman, and her murder was gruesome enough to enthrall the entire country (she was mutilated horribly and sliced in half at the waist). Madeleine is in book and film bisexual, insatiable, and likes to play dress-up…as the Dahlia. We’ve seen this morbid, Freudian death-wish behavior before–women crowded outside Jeffrey Dahmer’s court hearings asking his hand in marriage.
The Dahlia’s short, brutal, tragic life–and her vicious, mysterious death–held sunny California in thrall for years. The fictional policemen in The Black Dahlia find their lives ripped apart by obsession–and Madeleine takes a different tack. Doppelgangers, those horrifying doubles–in the supernatural or just-plain-crazy sense–are usually spurred by obsession, fascination, and an inability to deal with one’s own problems and past. Or, perhaps, in Madeleine’s case, just a fixation on a woman whose life and death are endlessly mysterious.
Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
Yes, yes, I already mentioned Black Swan in a previous Oscar-themed Listicle. I gave it a rave review. It’s no secret I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, camp, silliness, and all. It made me uncomfortable, upset, and disgusted–in all the best ways. The movie’s detractors describe it as overwrought, and I won’t argue with that–but I stand by what I wrote.
It’d be hard to write an article on doppelgangers in 2010 without at least peripherally mentioning Black Swan, so here you go: Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) must mentally divide herself in two to achieve the role of the dual swans in Swan Lake. Physically similar, emotionally disparate dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) appears, and though her behavior is not as downright insane as, say, Hedy’s in Single White Female, Lily’s appearance only serves to push Nina a little farther along the crazy road. Nina’s mirror images, both her reflection in glass and Lily, play an immense part in setting up Nina’s insanity.
Where Single White Female (and I’m guessing The Roommate) hint at sexual tension between female protagonists and their doubles, Black Swan takes doppelganger sexuality to a whole other level. Admittedly it’s a draw to watch Portman and Kunis get it on–but what’s striking is just how horrifying their sex scene actually is. Nina, who unsuccessfully tries to masturbate earlier in the movie (at the urging of her director and unknowing her mother is in the room with her), takes self-pleasure to another level in having sexytimes with her lookalike–who may or may not be real. In a final, perhaps overdone sequence, Nina stabs her doppelganger in the belly with (what else?) a shard of glass. By eliminating–or perhaps incorporating–her double, she’s finally “perfect.”
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” ep. “Doppelgangland” (dir. Joss Whedon, 1999)
And now for a humorous take on the subject matter:
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is, no joke, one of the smartest TV shows ever to air. Throughout its six seasons, “Buffy” managed to create and then alter dynamic, lovable characters, do a musical episode without being obnoxious, and make a brilliant episode that has almost no dialogue (“Hush”). On top of that, Whedon really knows his predecessors, and of course he’d use the theme of a doppelganger to symbolize the fragmentation of a character’s person (he also does this with Xander Harris in another episode). As in Black Swan, a double represents the “bad” side of an immutably “good” girl.
Willow is one of the show’s most complex characters (one of Whedon’s trademarks is that his supporting characters are more fun than his protagonists). Up until season three, Willow’s a bit of a pushover, a total sweetheart who wears pastels and buries her nose in a book three quarters of the time. In season three her experiments with witchcraft bring out a darker side of her that manifests physically in “Doppelgangland,” much to viewers’ delight. After Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) makes a wish to demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) that Buffy had never existed, Anya accidentally creates a temporal fold, and Evil Vampire Willow ends up in Sunnydale alongside the Scooby Gang and the real Willow.
Vampire Willow wears a bosom-boosting corset and crimson lipstick, exudes sensuality, and takes sh*t from absolutely no one. Danger Willow Rosenberg (yes, I did). “She’s exactly like you, every detail,” says Buffy, “except for you not being a dominatrix…as far as we know.” When the twin Willows meet, things get both funny and awkward. “I’m so evil and skanky,” says Good Willow of Vampire Willow. “And I think I’m kind of gay!” Which makes total (hilarious) sense to anyone who’s seen the whole series. Of course, regular Willow and evil Willow have to battle it out for the right to exist–but killing your evil twin is never as easy as it seems.
Lost Highway (dir. David Lynch, 1997)
“You’ll never have me…” the most dreadful phrase a man can hear from the lips of the woman he wants. And in the case of Lost Highway, the further implication is “not in this life or any other.”
Please bear in mind that David Lynch’s polarizing noir thriller – with its non-linear storyline, dreamlike atmosphere, and characters who to tend to change into other characters spontaneously – is completely open to interpretation. Many people will quite justly say “What the hell’s going ON?” and walk away. I was one. However, if the suspense and atmosphere reel you back in for a second viewing, you might find yourself enjoying the mystery.
Briefly: Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette) are a hip and rather strange young couple on the rocks. A series of bizarre messages and encounters indicate someone sinister is watching them. Meanwhile, questions of sexual frustration and infidelity between them are helping not one bit.
Then, suddenly, Renee turns up in several pieces. Fred apparently has no memory of the brutal murder, but appears to be the prime suspect. However, the very night he is put on death row, something odd happens. He turns into a young man named Pete (Balthazar Getty), who has a similar case of blackout amnesia and no apparent connection to the crime. Released by mystified authorities, Pete resumes his own life, only to find that his family and friends are keeping something from him. Exactly what “happened” is a mystery, but all is not well. As Pete cultivates a dangerous relationship with the oddly familiar Alice (also Arquette, with a classic film noir peroxide job), it seems that the tension between Fred and Renee just might be playing itself out in the guise of these new characters. Holding court over all is a sinister Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who appears at crucial times to taunt the characters with diabolical good humor.
Theories abound over just what this movie means. Terms like “limbo,” “Faustian bargain,” “parallel universe,” and “psychogenic fugue” (offered by Lynch himself) bounce around freely. It plays out like a long nightmare, but whether Fred and Pete are at the beginning, at the end, or stuck hopelessly in the middle is a subject for debate. Whether Patricia Arquette is playing the same woman in two states of consciousness, or a fantasy version of a real live person, or two people linked by unbelievable coincidence, none can definitively say. Clues to support all these ideas pepper the movie, but subtly. I have my own conclusions, based on many viewings of the film, but I am comfortable having it all to myself. It is not the kind of movie that one explanation fits perfectly.
Among a host of other distinctions – including the last known screen appearances of Robert Blake, Richard Pryor, and Jack Nance – Lost Highway features one of the most memorable instances of first-glance romance in all of cinema.
In super-slow-motion, a brand new Patricia Arquette steps from a slick black convertible as Balthazar Getty looks on a kind of wonder. The accompaniment to the scene is a low-key, oddly earnest performance of “This Magic Moment” by Lou Reed. As someone previously indifferent to both parts of that equation, I look on both the song and the singer differently on the strength of that simple but arresting sequence. It is one of those rare, near-perfect movie moments, a turning point that snatches one back from the edge bewildered frustration. We have already seen Fred in hell. Now, it seems, we get to follow Pete down the road that leads there.
The Tomb Of Ligeia (dir. Roger Corman, 1964)
Oh, Vincent Price, you old scamp. You love them so much they come back from the dead. Of all the Roger Corman “Poe” pictures, this is one of the least celebrated and yet one of the most lavishly executed. Like Hammer’s Dracula films featuring Christopher Lee, these movies accumulated higher production value with each passing year, presumably as their popularity justified more and more money being spent on them. Nonetheless, the films have the same familiar atmosphere, just more richly decorated, each time around. Having conquered The Pit And The Pendulum, The Fall Of The House Of Usher, The Masque Of The Red Death and more, Corman turned his attention to a more obscure Poe relic, Ligeia, a tale of obsession, possession, and undying (undead?) love.
Vincent Price plays Verden Fell, a creepy widower determined to mourn his beloved Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) in everlasting solitude. He shuns sunlight and society, until a chance encounter with a vibrant and beautiful woman named Rowena (the same actress, made blonde and wholesome) turns his head ever so slightly. They grow to love each other, despite his reluctance to give up his mourning. Meanwhile, as Verden finds himself recalled to life, Ligeia gets a similar idea. She has been ghosting around the old manor house, and may have vengeful designs upon the new lady of the house. We all know how these movies go, right?
A menacing black cat, evidently Ligeia’s avatar of choice, begins stalking around causing trouble, and constantly reminding us that love obviously never dies. Ligeia is pushing hard for unholy resurrection and a return to the arms of the one she left behind. It gets positively scary. As Verden juggles relationships on either side of hereafter, he finds he must either stand firm against his old love or betray his new one. The movie features many a bizarre shock, but the plot offers little in the way of surprise. The mood is what counts, complemented by the rich period staging. This has one of the more thrilling climaxes of the Corman Poe cycle, and plenty to enjoy whilst getting there.
Sisters (dir. Brian de Palma, 1973)
This movie will get into your blood and crawl around a little. Of the many sequels, imitations, remakes and rip-offs of Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of gruesome suspense, Sisters is almost certainly the closest to a true spiritual successor. Director Brian de Palma, a confessed Hitchcock disciple, even had the score written by Mr. Hitchcock’s longtime collaborator, Bernard Herrmann.
Comparing the movie to Psycho might be giving away too much already, but despite its entertainment value it does not conceal its big secret all that carefully. I will say no more on the subject. If it is your kind of film, you’ll enjoy it regardless of how the plot twists surprise you or not. Let’s say it’s half Psycho, half Repulsion, with a sprig of The Patty Duke Show for garnish. In other words a roaring good time, right?
I considered including a clip of the rather unforgettable “birthday cake” scene – the first major shock of the film – but out of respect for sensitive viewers I leave you to seek it out as you wish. Three words: Great Big Knife.
The story goes that Danielle and Dominique (Margot Kidder and… guess who!) are twin sisters, formerly conjoined but separated as little girls. Danielle is sweet, successful, and looking to lead a normal life. Dominique is a homicidal maniac. Or is Danielle the dangerous one? That’s the fun of the puzzle. A tenacious young journalist (Jennifer Salt) is the sole witness to a brutal muder committed by one of them, and enlists a slovenly private eye (Charles Durning) to help her prove it.
From there the thriller capers along in usual thriller fashion. As you may have guessed, all is not what it seems with these wacky twins. Margot Kidder gets a round of applause for her dual performances. Her chilling interpretation of eye-rolling madness is right up there with Catherine Deneuve in the aforementioned sexual horror piece, Polanski’s Repulsion, and with Jessica Walter at the darkest points of Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me. This girl will scare you.