Written and Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Paul Hampton, Barbara Steele, and Lynn Lowry
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh, that disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other, that even dying is an act of eroticism."
Horror fans know that David Cronenberg can and will do unspeakable things to your body; I guess the guy practically created ďbody horror,Ē and he hit the ground running with Shivers, wherein he boldly proclaimed, ďyour ass is mine (along with the rest of your extremities).Ē Okay, maybe he didnít really say that, but he might as well have with his first feature film (and true horror) effort, which represents one of the best uses of Canadian tax dollars ever put to use.
A doctor (Fred Doederlin) has been concocting some bizarre experiments that result in the creation of a parasitic leech thatís half-aphrodisiac, half-venereal disease. He injects his unholy creation into a 19 year old girl (that heís apparently been getting to know since she was 12--eek!), itís bad news because it turns out sheís pretty promiscuous. Now, the parasite has been let loose in an apartment complex, and it turns everyone into a ravenous, murderous sex fiend. Only a doctor (Paul Hampton) and his nurse (Lynn Lowry) can keep the epidemic from spreading into the greater Montreal area.
Thereís not really a moment in Shivers that isnít super unnerving. It opens with something that resembles an advertisement for the apartment complex in question, complete with a quaint voice-over intoning the propertyís amenities and whatnot. Meanwhile, some eerie music plays, and that voice is just a little bit too quaint, maybe even a little vacant. You donít trust it, nor should you--in fact, Cronenberg is all about breeding distrust and paranoia every deranged step of the way. Itís marked by such odd contrasts as it builds up; for example, a couple moves into their new apartment while a girl is systematically butchered in a neighboring room. Getting you settled in isnít a concern for Cronenberg, but making you squirm definitely is. The movie reminds me a lot of Romeroís The Crazies, not only due to the frenzied, maniacal hordes, but also because of the overall suffocating vibe. Actually, itís even more suffocating than The Crazies and actually resembles the claustrophobia usually reserved for apartment buildings where Polanski is the landlord.
One of Cronenbergís best tricks in contrast is his ability to get us on edge about our most primal and allegedly satisfying urge: sex. The correlation between sex and death in horror movies has been banged to death for years, but itís noteworthy here because itís so audacious and brash. Forget the cheeky slasher fuck-and-die routine--this is a truly nutty display of carnal carnage that reduces the previous decadeís free love ideals to cinders and anticipates the hysteria of AIDS yet to come. Perhaps only Cronenberg could make a film with Barbara Steele and Lynn Lowry into a nightmarish proposition, as the sexuality of both are to be feared rather than admired. Thatís where our hero Paul Hampton eventually finds himself--wrapped up in a nightmarish world of promiscuity and unbridled energy. Oddly enough, that frenzy sometimes seems like a favorable contrast to the sterility that otherwise penetrates the film. The life that Hamptonís character leads seems rather rote and devoid of sexual desire (he seemingly ignores Lowry as she undresses in front of him at one point).
Itís quite possible to read the whole thing as some sort of devious treatise on sexual awakening. The mundane, stunted life of suburbia is seemingly invaded by primal urges; sure, said urges might impel people towards murder, but what if everyone was a little dead inside already? Cronenberg holds his cards close, though--itís almost hard to see where he comes down. He tosses in enough wry humor that pokes fun at some of the characters; a sequence involving a man puking up a parasite onto two elderly ladies below him is morbidly satiric. In the end, Shivers completely works because you canít be sure whatís worse: life before or after the plague. Such ambiguity is tough to pull off, but its practically eerie the way Cronenberg never lets viewers off the hook. Like the parasite itself, he gently sidles up next to you, crawls around in your brain, bashes it in, and still leaves you something to chew on.
Of course, Shivers works at a primal level too. Itís essentially a mad scientist/creature feature hybrid, an old B-movie standard that gets twisted and polluted by Cronenbergís clinical approach. Actual high strung hysterics are few and far between, as he instead settles for something a little more low key in tone. This makes all the eviscerations and bloodletting all the more disturbing because it feels so systematic at times. If the weird, parasitic leech that causes misshapen growths werenít enough, thereís all kinds of other sick effects work. Shivers is one of the best combinations of genuine, implied terrors and grisly, visceral displays. Itís like a union of the creeping, paranoiac horrors of Invasion of the Body Snatchers mixed up with the grand guignol gore theatrics of its contemporaries. The next fifteen years of Cronenbergís career would be defined by such audacious bodily mutilations; in fact, he immediately returned to the same sort of themes with his follow-up, Rabid, another sexually charged shocker that basically acts as the spiritual successor to Shivers.
Itís a minor miracle that Cronenberg was ever permitted to make another film given the enormous firestorm ignited by his feature debut. Lambasted for taking those Canadian tax dollars and using them to gross out the populace, Shivers gained notoriety pretty quickly. Journalist Robert Fulford led the charge with an article that attempted to raise the village pitchforks, but it apparently didnít work, as the film actually generated a profit on its investment. The filmís low budget origins are obvious, but the tax shelter aesthetic actually does the film a service, as the sterile production values are a perfect match for the filmís tone. Plus, the most important aspect is nailed--the performances, which are truly great. Allan Kolman is especially creepy as one of the parasiteís victims, as you slowly see him slip away into a rapacious fiend. Cronenberg and fellow deranged Canuck Ivan Reitman (on board as producer) stretch every bit of the $100,000 afforded to them to create a triumph in low-budget schlock and awe. Really, the CFDC should have seen this coming--what did they expect to happen when a guy shopping a script entitled Orgy of the Blood Parasites teamed up with the guy who unleashed Cannibal Girls on the world?
Thatís a thoroughly Canadian match made in hell (well, Montreal, but whatever), but it resulted in one of the finest examples of Maple Leaf Macabre. Despite the relative success, it actually did result in Cronenberg getting evicted from his apartment (due to a "morality clause"), plus it was the beginning of his tenuous relationship with his homeland, which would literally go south by the next decade as he bolted for the States. Besides that, the only thing that sucks about Shivers is that itís so hard to see at this point. Itís almost criminal that this film has only seen one DVD release, which is now long out of print. Image Entertainment released it way back in 1998, and if you want it now, itís going to cost you (new copies sometimes skyrocket into triple digits). Iím a bit surprised that Cronenbergís brief resurgence a few years ago didnít urge a re-release of some sort. At any rate, itís been thirteen years and weíre at the dawn of a new digital age, so Iím sure itíll eventually resurface on some sort of streaming platform or Blu-ray (which would be preferable). One can only hope because Shivers is one of the most perverse, sick, and twisted flicks imaginable--and I love every second of it. Essential!
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