Shivers (1975)
By: Mr Intolerance on February 7, 2010  | 
DVD
Metrodome Distribution (UK). Region 2, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 1.0. 83 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Barbara Steele
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Country: Canada
External Links
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Also known under the more lurid, B-grade 50s creature-feature sounding title They Came From Within, Shiversmarked the feature length debut of Canadian agent provocateur director David Cronenberg. With a career that's spanned over four decades, Cronenberg has never stinted at tackling taboo subjects and confronting his audience, and has maintained a visceral edge to his films that even a number of his contemporaries have not. His films, while often icy to the point of being clinical, always display an acerbic intellect, and while his focus in recent years has been away from the horror/sci-fi genre fare that made his mark, the levels of unease, claustrophobia, anti-authoritarianism, subversion and bleakness have never dissipated or been compromised. This is as true for contemporary Cronenberg films such as Eastern Promises as it is for his earlier, more primal work such as Shivers.

The film begins with a montage of the visually unappealing Starliner Towers, a luxury apartment building featuring resort-style living. The montage (complete with smarmy advertising voice-over) is meant to present the place as being completely desirable, the kind of place successful people would live, but the reality is that its flat lifeless colours and isolation from the outside world make it seem bland and artificial, and somehow threatening.

That threat is emphasised almost immediately with the image of Dr Hobbes (what's a sci-fi/horror flick without a loony scientist) beating his school-uniform clad mistress Annabelle into submission before stripping her, slicing open her stomach, pouring acid into the wound and then slicing open his own throat – seems she was other peoples' mistress than just his. Other residents seem to have dysfunctional relationships with their families, and some of them just seem plain disturbed, scared of the place they live in. One, Nicholas Tudor (another "client" of Annabelle's), clearly has something living beneath his skin. In every dream home a heartache, huh?

Our "hero", for want of a better word, Roger St Luc, is the resident doctor at Starliner Towers, and while he doesn't have any personal stake in finding out what happened to Hobbes, idle curiosity gets the better of him, and he finds out that Hobbes had a few sexual issues to work through with strong paedophile tendencies, and that his work in his research lab at the Towers was in creating parasitic organisms to replace damaged internal organs. The only cost is the little blood that the parasite needs to live – sound like a fair trade? It's not quite as simple as all that, and maybe there was a little of their creator in the creation; their side effect is on the mind, and any kind of benevolent reason Hobbes may have had in creating these things is immediately called into question through seeing what's happening to Tudor. Hobbes had also worked out that the fastest way to introduce these parasites was to introduce one into promiscuous Annabelle and let her pass the slug-like intruders on to other members of the community. But to what end? That's for you to find out.

Cronenberg and his effects guy Joe Blasco have made the parasites look about as unappealing as possible – kind of like a bleeding turd with a glans-like head, basically – which makes their nature even more horrific. Imagine something like that forcing its way into your body through any orifice that would take it, and worse, imagine liking it and the aphrodisiac quality it almost immediately engenders until you just simply didn't care any more – about anything but sexual assault on anyone who comes to hand.

Tudor has bloodily vomited out one of his parasites – they multiply – over his balcony and onto the umbrella of a doddering old lady and her gossipy friend (who said Cronenberg doesn't have an admittedly black sense of humour), and once outside of the body, the critters don't waste any time trying to find a new host , as other residents of Starliner Towers are about to find out, one of whom, Betts, is played by horror scream-queen Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, Curse of the Crimson Altar) – arguably hired, like Lynn Lowry (I Drink Your Blood, The Crazies) to give the film a bit more appeal for genre fans through a recognisable "brand name" face. Betts is assaulted by one of the parasites in what has most probably become the films single most memorable moment, while she's taking a bath. It's one of those moments where you think you've seen something more explicit than you actually have, the effect of it is so strong.

St Luc is still bumbling along, despite being presented with enough clues to be able to start putting something together, seemingly blissfully unaware that something deeply wrong is happening in Starliner Towers. He's also completely unaware that his nurse (the gorgeous Lynn Lowry) is smitten with him. You couldn't even call him a protagonist, let alone a hero. Cronenberg seems to be telling us that there are no heroes anymore – and if you look at many of his early films, not only are the ideas of good and evil coloured only in shades of grey, but also in terms of who is the good guy and who is the bad guy – there are no definites anymore. Some of the actions carried out by the characters who are ostensibly "heroic" are actually the kinds of things we would condemn as criminal. The sexuality they indulge in might be seen as aberrant, or transgressive, by the society viewing the film. If these characters are heroes, then they're heroes for a changing, modern world. Much like in the films themselves, the world we live in is changing, and so are our attitudes to moral absolutes.

By the time St Luc realises he has to act, he's left his run a little too late, and the Starliner Towers complex has started to gradually at first, but with frightening rapidity, become one vast, seething, undulating mass of flesh – a multi-levelled orgy of predatory, violent carnality. What has become sexually acceptable there might cause some discomfort for squeamish viewers, or hilarity for the more jaded and cynical – remember that Cronenberg's sense of humour is probably not for everyone… The ending, without giving away plot specifics, is reminiscent of both George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead as well as JG Ballard's High Rise(the setting particularly, as well as the mob mentality), the apocalyptic nature of both texts, the grimness, the claustrophobia, the social comment, the scares.

Cronenberg's relationship with science, particularly medical science – or rather how science affects the body, has always been one built on a distrust that verges on the paranoid. The idea of being horrified by what your own body has become through what intrusive technology has done to it resonates through movies such as Rabid, Videodrome, Scanners, The Brood, Dead Ringers, Crash – most of his career, in fact. It's certainly no different here, and would seem to be married to an almost misanthropic, nihilistic political agenda. There's no real sympathy for any of the characters, the camera provides more of a distance than a proximity between audience and action – strangely enough, it veers between exploitative leering for the raincoat brigade and clinical detachment, but in either case it doesn't really allow for insight into the characters' headspace – we watch what happens without emotional involvement. Oh sure, we grit our teeth at the rather gruesome moments of sexual carnage, but that's only because Cronenberg's threatening us on a level that makes us even more vulnerable than in the usual horror flick. Violence = bad. Sexual violence = truly horrifying. I guess it's the sense of the body being violated in the most intimate way possible that makes Shivers such an unnerving, and at times distressing film, rendering what is meant to be an expression of love into a weapon of domination.

Further to that, sex here renders the human being into little more than a zombie – through the release that the parasites give us, it takes us from being an individual into being part of a mindless herd with no control over the baser animal instincts we still retain but try to submerge under our veneer of civilisation. That's part of the terror on display in Shivers, our fear of losing our control – that's the zombie analogy I was trying to raise before, where your reason is occluded by something greater, and your consciousness becomes not your own anymore. The target is still flesh, but the reason as to why it's desired has changed; being more consumed by it, than consuming it.

Fear of a loss of identity, a staple of the modern horror film, is writ large here – being subsumed into a conglomeration rather than being an actual individual. Conversely, there's the fear of one's own body and a rich vein of disgust at the needs and desires of that body, and an even further disgust at what the body can produce and induce in another person's body. A metaphor for venereal disease? Birth, perhaps? Maybe, but I think that maybe over-simplifying things a little. Like all of Cronenberg's films, your reaction to it will probably be different to mine – he's a subjective film-maker, your response to his art will no doubt be equally subjective.

Now, if you're thinking that the above review is a little flaky in terms of structure – the film is equally as disjointed; the thematic chaos is ably represented by the disordered narrative. It would seem that several storylines have been wound together with a varying degree of success, if a smooth linear tale is what you want. But in terms of representing an idea about the chaos leading up to society's potential collapse, it makes a lot of sense.

A post-script: controversy follows Cronenberg's films like a bad smell and Shivers is no exception. Much of the money that was used to fund this film (presumably after its title had been changed from the initial Orgy of the Blood Parasites) came from a government body, the Canadian Film Development Corporation. After Shivers was released a scandal immediately ensued with questions being asked in the House of Commons about why tax-payers' money was being used to fund such violent and "pornographic" films – as Cronenberg points out in the special features, his was at that point the only film the CFDC had funded that actually made its money back, and accordingly the questions stopped being asked. I think the episode reflects amusingly on what the government think their public wants from its entertainment, and what that public really does want.

Video
A good image, if a little soft, Shivers is thankfully presented free from artefact or glitch in its OAR, anamorphically enhanced.
Audio
This isn't so great, being a one track mono soundtrack. It sounds by turns hollow and muffled and I found that I had to alternately keep turning the sound up and down in order to hear, or not be deafened. This could definitely use a remastering.
Extra Features
Surprisingly few - I think that the definitive edition of Shivers may well be some ways off. You get a brief video introduction from writer/director David Cronenberg (it's an interview about the film from 2001 rather than a per se introduction, but definitely worth a watch as Cronenberg is always an interesting, informative and articulate interview subject), some text production notes by noted scholar of horror Kim Newman (many pages long, but a must-read for fans of the film), some text filmographies of members of the cast and crew (Barbara Steele, Paul Hampton, Joe Silver and David Cronenberg) and an image gallery. I mean, it's alright, but hardly comprehensive - a commentary track with Cronenberg might have been nice.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
An early classic from one of the most consistent directors around, Shivers is a bold feature debut that gets right up in its audience's face and stares it down, hard. Driving a misanthropic, subversive stake through the heart of the permissive society and questioning exactly how permissive we should actually allow ourselves to be, Shivers confronts on all levels, cauterising our ideas on sexuality and relationships inside of the macrocosm through its sometimes sleazy examination of the microcosm of Starliner Towers - cram enough people together in an artificial society with questionable moral standards and something has to give. That something, Cronenberg appears to be telling us, is our humanity. A highly recommended film that manages to be intelligent and original while coruscating its audience on one level, while being seamy horror fun heaping sex and violence on top of each other on another.

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