David Cronenberg, 1976
Starring: Fred Doederlin, Paul Hampton, Lynn Lowry, Barbara Steele
"Even dying is an act of eroticism."
In a brand new, high class apartment building, a doctor, Hobbes, murders a young girl and then kills himself. It seems that Hobbes was experimenting with parasites and used his young mistress as the host. He tried to burn the parasites out of her, but was too late. Her sexual promiscuity caused her to infect others in the apartment building. This is first noticed because some of the male residents have strange tumors in their stomachs. The parasites soon begin to escape from their hosts and travel through the apartment building, infecting anyone they come across by possessing their hosts either through sexual or oral contact. Anyone infected is plagued with an overwhelming sexual urge that causes them to be incredibly violent. The building’s physician — it houses a small medical center — is alerted to the strange goings on and tries to alert outside help before it is too late.
Several films from the ‘70s, particularly cult or horror films, addressed the emerging horror of capitalism, commercialism, and the middle class, such as Dawn of the Dead and Salo. Shivers is certainly among this group. Cronenberg’s Starlight apartment complex begins as a middle class oasis, a self-reliant structure full of the most modern designs and amenities, including its own medical clinic. The parasites infect these boring, thoroughly average citizens and turn them into ravaging sex beasts.
The script is not Cronenberg’s finest — he wrote it himself — through it has a number of interesting elements. The sex maniac angle becomes a little tired by the end and the conclusion of the film isn’t nearly as gripping as the first three-fourths. There are numerous scenes of black comedy, but it is the blackest of the black. People are murdered, raped, possessed, prone to psychotic behavior, etc. Critics (and the Canadian parliament) passionately hated the film for these reasons and it’s somewhat amazing that Cronenberg went on to have such a long and popular career after the amount of hatred leveled at him over Shivers.
This isn’t the most polished or stylized of Cronenberg’s films, but it is important to keep in mind that it is his very first. The poor lighting and sound techniques can be overlooked and occasionally give the film a TV documentary feel that adds to its realism. It is also easy to ignore these shabbier elements when the camera menacingly lingers on the apartment building. First a place of desire, luxury, and status, it quickly becomes a claustrophobic tomb, trapping its denizens in their apartments, in narrow hallways, and dark garages.
There are some ridiculous scenes, but I think these moments are not unintentional camp, they are purposeful black humor. Some of the scenes do look like cast offs from a ‘70s softcore film, but Cronenberg keeps the tension ramped up enough that terror — or at least physical discomfort — is never far away.
Joe Blasco did some excellent work with the phallic, fecal parasite creature. Cronenberg’s parasite is not an original idea — the William Castle film The Tingler has a creature that is similar in behavior and appearance, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a similar group possession plot — but it obviously went on to influence Alien. This is also somewhat of a riff on Night of the Living Dead, though the film’s worst scenes are the ones in which the possessed tenants shuffle about like zombies.
The cast is decent, if uneven. It’s always wonderful to see horror scream queen Barbara Steele (Black Sunday), here out of period costume, but still looking lovely and seductive. Lynn Lowry (The Crazies), Joe Silver (Rabid), and Paul Hampton (Babylon 5) all put in good, if somewhat wooden appearances. One of the film’s major flaws is its lack of a compelling, central protagonist, something that Rabid, Cronenberg’s next film, would also suffer from.
Shivers is also known as They Came from Within and was made under the title Orgy of the Blood Parasites. It is available on DVD, though it is long out of print and very expensive. The film comes highly recommended, though Cronenberg aficionados will get the most out of it, as will anyone who enjoys camp as well as extreme horror. Cronenberg followed this with Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979) before moving onto further cult acclaim in the ‘80s. This trilogy is among is weirdest and most raw and —like many of his later films — I think they deserve to be seen together, as one repulsive, festering unit.