Way before the uproar that faced Crash in 1996, it seems that even as early as his third film, David Cronenberg had what it took to supremely piss people off on a deeply impressive scale.
Saddled with a rich bounty of alternative titles that got ever more B-Movie as they go along (They Came From Within, The Parasite Murders and – get this – Orgy Of The Blood Parasites) Shivers was funded by The Canadian Film Development Corporation, which basically meant that this lurid tale of squishy parasites turning the residents of a middle-class housing complex into rolling eyed rape-maniacs was funded by your average, Canadian tax-payer. This didn’t go down to well with some (it would kind of be like finding out that the government has been spending a chunk of your wages on a Human Centipede reboot) and so Shivers was hauled in front of Parliment in order to have its social and artistic merits vigorously discussed – but luckily, Shivers could handle it, because no matter how weird and sleazy the movie gets (hint: very), Cronenberg’s trademark thoughtfulness wins through.
Welcome to the Starliner Towers, a luxury apartment complex located on a island a mere twelve minute drive from Montreal that boasts homes that boasts all mod-cons, on site doctor and dentist practices and unbearably sycophantic employees. However, in one of the rooms, a twisted murder is underway as a Doctor chokes a young woman to death and then gags her with tape, slices her abdomen open, pours acid inside and then slashes his own throat open with a scalpel. The reason for this is that the not-so-good doctor has been playing god by creating a parasite that was supposed to take the strain from failing organs but instead turns its host into a mindless, violent sex maniacs (don’t you hate it when that happens) and his young female victim was sort of the Typhoid Mary of rapist creating worms. What’s worse is that before her untimely demise, the young woman was somewhat promiscuous and so has already infected some of the other inhabitants of the Starliner which starts a ball comprised of horrific, violent act rolling.
Caught up in all of this is Dr. Roger St. Luc and his girlfriend, Nurse Forsythe, who are trying to limit the damage as best they can, but it becomes fairly obvious that it’s already far too late as the parasites have spread rapidly through the apartments transforming the residents into sex obsessed threats.
Can these two possibly hope to contain this horrifying infection before it spreads to the mainland and turns Montreal into the world’s most disturbing bunga bunga party?
The initial movie of a very loose trilogy of films that randomly feature an infestation of mind altering killer parasites (the others being Night Of The Creeps and Slither), Shivers could not be more different from a tonal point of view. Where the latter two are a couple of rousing horror comedies, Cronenberg’s low budget epic is essentially a version of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise where the chaos is caused by something a fair bit weirder than the disintegration of social norms and interestingly both Shivers and High Rise were released in the same year.
Setting the scene for the cornucopia of venereal body horror that Cronenberg poured on us throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Shivers dedicates itself in forcing us to confront some incredibly uncomfortable imagery in order to stay admirably true to its admittedly shamelessly exploitative plot. The movie doesn’t pull many punches and takes great pride in unfurling a procession of scenes designed to make its audience recoil, be it the deliberately clumsy sexual assaults that also see elder women attacking younger men and, in it’s most infamous moment, has a parasite swim into Barbara Steele’s cha-cha while she relaxes in a bath. However, balancing the vast amount of genuinely distasteful moments (including a couple that hint at infected children) is the fact that the movie, much like the rest of it’s director’s output, is amazingly versatile for a movie about pervert generating sex parasites and manages to absorb almost every metaphor you want to throw at it.
Want to suggest that Shivers is a damning commentary of the middle class separating themselves to the detriment of social conventions: it can take it. Wanna also sling in the idea that the 70’s attitudes to sexual health was heading towards a STI epidemic: why not, it certainly fits – and so on. Usually a movie with such deranged story beats usually is only concerned with being as repulsive and exploitative as possible; and while Shivers certainly pushes the envelope as far as Joe Blasco’s squishy effects will allow, but even in its grimmest moments you can still feel Cronenberg’s intelligence punching through.
Of course, considering that this was a low budget horror movie made in 1975 on the dollar of Canadian tax payers (I really love that detail), Shivers, on more than one occasion feels a little silly thanks to either lack of funds or experience and the main character is barely formed beyond “man trying to stop sex parasites”. On top of that, Cronenberg seems to have spent more time working out the parasites gestation habits than he has on the actual behavior of their victims – if the infected turn into deranged sex offenders, how do they all managed to pull their shit together and stop violently screwing for five minutes to all get dolled up to the nines and into their cars for the magnificently down-beat coda?
With all that being said, despite it’s obvious shortcomings, Shivers is still a legitimately unsettling exercise where trash cinema meets actual ideas and concepts and is one of those movies that’s chillingly relevant today despite featuring zebra print kitchen decals and a shit-load of wood panneling among its graphic depictions of murder and depravity.