Twin films – 10 times when two very similar movies came along together

Like when you wait ages for a movie about a brilliant 19th-century magician… and then two come along at once.

Brogan Morris

Churchill (2017) and Darkest Hour (2017)

Churchill (2017) and Darkest Hour (2017)

Twin films – two features released in quick succession that bear a striking resemblance to one another – are an intriguing cinematic phenomenon. They may come about by accident or by design: The Truman Show (1998) and EDtv (1999), both about a man whose life is filmed round the clock for a TV show, independently just happened to tap into the fascination with the then-nascent reality television; while 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992) were competing Christopher Columbus movies, from two different studios, that premiered at almost the same time – to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to America.

This year we’ll see Jonathan Teplitzky’s wartime biopic, Churchill, followed swiftly by Joe Wright’s own Winston Churchill drama, Darkest Hour, which is due in the autumn. Time will tell whether Brian Cox or Gary Oldman gives the most convincing impersonation of the British PM, but – in the meantime – here are 10 more pairs of cinematic doppelgangers that offered two compelling takes on the same story.

Dr. Strangelove/Fail-Safe (1964)

Dr Strangelove/Fail-Safe (1964)

Two years after the Cuban missile crisis, and in the grip of Cold War panic, Hollywood produced two movies about nuclear armageddon. They each posed a similar question: should humankind parking itself at the brink of its own annihilation be regarded as a horrible madness or a cosmic joke? Both Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove deal with the build-up to mutually assured destruction between the USA and USSR from the perspective of American military command, but where Lumet plays it anxiously straight, Kubrick opts for levity, turning Peter George’s source novel Red Alert into an arch comedy anchored by a trifecta of deadpan Peter Sellers turns.

Nosferatu the Vampyre/Dracula (1979)

Nosferatu the Vampyre/Dracula (1979)

In 1979, vampire movies based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula were apparently all the rage, with no less than five variations of the tale hitting cinemas. The two finest takes of the year, however, were actually adaptations of adaptations, with Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre a remake of F.W. Murnau’s unofficial 1922 Dracula movie Nosferatu, and John Badham’s Dracula based on Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s Broadway play of the book. The films reflect their respective counts: Nosferatu the Vampyre, unsettling and hypnotic like Klaus Kinski’s murine ghoul, and Dracula, handsome and seductive like Frank Langella’s sexier, more manipulative shapeshifter.

An American Werewolf in London/The Howling (1981)

An American Werewolf in London/The Howling (1981)

Another crepuscular double helping, John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling brought the lycanthrope myth into a modern setting for a tongue-in-cheek, hard-scare update, their joint modus operandi ostensibly to take the werewolf out of the realm of the unintentionally comical via nightmarish special effects and acknowledgement of the monster’s patent absurdity. The glare of the full moon was clearly strong in 1981, as three additional werewolf movies also went on release that year: the Spanish-language Return of the Wolfman, detective horror Wolfen and spoof Full Moon High.

Back to the Future/Peggy Sue Got Married (1985/1986)

Back to the Future/Peggy Sue Got Married (1985/1986)

Riding a wave of baby boomer nostalgia that also brought films such as Diner (1982) and Stand by Me (1986), two mid-80s time-travel movies transported their leads from the then-present back to the idyllic, pastel-hued days of doo-wop and pompadours. Classic blockbuster Back to the Future strands precocious teen Michael J. Fox in a fish-out-of-water scenario when a plutonium-powered DeLorean takes him to 1955, while the lesser-seen flipside of that coin is Francis Ford Coppola’s more reflective Peggy Sue Got Married, in which Kathleen Turner’s newly divorced housewife rediscovers her joie de vivre after she faints at a high-school reunion and wakes up in 1960 as her teenage self.

Kalifornia/Natural Born Killers (1993/1994)

Kalifornia/Natural Born Killers (1993/1994)

The killings of teen lovers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate have proven so irresistible to cinema over the years that at one point Hollywood released two movies based on the murder spree in less than a year – narratively related but stylistically poles apart. If Kalifornia is a road movie, peppered with violence and buoyed by a vanity-free Brad Pitt turn, then Natural Born Killers is a 200mph punk joyride, dreamt up by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone at his most creatively unhinged. Curiously, both films star Juliette Lewis in the Fugate role.

Antz/A Bug’s Life (1998)

Antz/A Bug’s Life (1998)

Not the only pair of twin films to spring from competition between animation houses Pixar and Dreamworks – see also Finding Nemo (2003) and Shark Tale (2004) – both Antz and A Bug’s Life were the source of a Pixar/Dreamworks feud. With each side claiming they had the original idea, the studios separately got to work on their stories of an average ant making a name for himself in a colony of millions, which came out the other end as two lovingly-crafted animations, both somewhat paradoxically about the value of cooperation and individuals separating from the crowd to become exceptionalist heroes.

Capote/Infamous (2005/2006)

Capote/Infamous (2005/2006)

Often with twin films, the last of the pair to make release tends to be the one that commercially suffers. So it went with Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, a star-studded biopic that failed to garner much interest after Bennett Miller’s indie Capote had already sated those seeking the story of how Truman Capote came to write In Cold Blood. Capote received the awards attention, but which film is ‘best’ largely depends on which performance you think better captures the controversial author: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s caustic incarnation or Toby Jones’ uncanny imitation.

The Prestige/The Illusionist (2006)

The Prestige/The Illusionist (2006)

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, both period movies about brilliant 19th-century magicians, boast luminous Oscar-nominated photography and tell tales of obsession in a world where ‘real magic’ may exist, but the two ultimately diverge in their conclusions. Where The Illusionist teases the supernatural throughout only to ultimately reveal that its hinting at the paranormal was a trick all along, The Prestige seems to be directing us toward rational explanations, only for Nolan to recalibrate his thriller as a supernatural horror with the very last shot.

The Raid/Dredd (2011/2012)

The Raid/Dredd (2012)

Gareth Evans’ relentless martial arts movie The Raid and Pete Travis’s dystopian comic book sci-fi Dredd may occupy different worlds and genres, but once they commit to their towering single locations, they’re almost one and the same: gritty, ultra-violent action movies confined to a high-rise crawling with criminals and murderous junkies. Both include the premise that our outnumbered heroes of the law can leave the building only by fighting their way up the levels to the big boss at the top.

Christine/Kate Plays Christine (2016)

Christine/Kate Plays Christine (2016)

Both Sundance 2016 premieres, Antonio Campos’s Christine and Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine attempt to get to the psychological root of Christine Chubbuck, the Florida news anchor who in 1974 shot herself live on air. The two films complement one another, each providing insight the other can’t: while Christine is an at-times agonisingly honest bio, set during the last weeks of Chubbuck’s (Rebecca Hall) life as depression and neurosis fester, documentary Kate Plays Christine follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she gets into the role of Chubbuck, gradually eroding the enigma through her research and Method preparations.

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