Canada | 1975 | Directed by David Cronenberg
Logline: The residents of a high-rise apartment building are infected by a virulent strain of parasites that turn them into sexual psychopaths.
“Everything is erotic … everything is sexual. You know what I mean? Even old flesh is erotic flesh. Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. Even Dying is an act of eroticism. Talking is sexual, breathing is sexual. To even physically exist is sexual.”
Cronenberg’s first commercial feature, Shivers (1975), set the unique tone of many of his films to come: rampant body horror. And despite its production value shortcomings, it’s a remarkably intense and resonant film; an pseudo-intellectual shocker for psycho-sexual deviants.
In the stylish, but sterile, new apartment building Starliner, on an island compound near Montreal, a crazed man attacks a high school student, in what appears to be a sexual assault. He strangles her and then administers crude surgery upon her, slicing her open and pouring acid into her stomach region. It turns out the man is a scientist experimenting with a kind or parasite. However, the creation has turned into a monster, and that monster has multiplied ten fold, turning the hosts into deranged, homicidal sex-fiends!
Cronenberg wrote the movie under the schlocky title Orgy of the Blood Parasites. It was first released in Canada as The Parasite Murders, but did much better business in the French-speaking parts of Canada under the French title Frissons. The film’s executive producers decided to re-title the movie Shivers (the English language translation), whilst in the U.S. the movie was given another B-movie title, They Came from Within.
Shivers was produced for $179,000 (Canadian dollars), and it shows, but Cronenberg has always used his budgets shrewdly, and despite the movie’s low budget constraints, the director instills a strong intelligence into the movie’s overall themes and conceptual ideas. The tone is serious, despite the absurdity of some of the situations. And the movie’s frenzied finale is a most unsettling and apocalyptic denouement.
The acting is wildly uneven; one of the leads Paul Hampton (Dr. Roger St Luc), is dreadful, mumbling his lines and smirking at the most inappropriate moments (was Cronenberg not watching the monitor??), however four of the other support actors manage to distract from his inadequacies; Allan Kolman (billed as Alan Migicovsky) as Nicolas Tudor, whom spends the majority of the film in a parasitic-induced stupor, yet still out-performs Hampton! Lyn Lowry (a B-movie queen) plays a nurse who manages to survive for much longer than one anticipates. Also of note is Joe Silver (poor Rollo Linsky), and the legendary Barbara Steele.
Joe Blasco’s use of the bladder prosthetic effect pioneered by Dick Smith in The Exorcist is used to great effect in Shivers with convincing shots of Nicolos Tudor’s pulsating naked hairy torso, apparently Smith was genuinely alarmed when he first saw the movie, as it become obvious that Blasco had invented the same procedure almost at the same time as he.
Most interestingly Shivers spawned numerous similar-themed movies; that of an alien-like infection transporting itself from body to body via human orifices (sexually-charged symbolism) and resulting in a plague of corrupt flesh. At one festival Cronenberg was even accused of ripping off Alien (1979), until he bluntly informed that Shivers had been filmed five years earlier. Even Martin Scorsese has expressed how impressed, yet utterly disturbed he was by the film’s suggested cataclysmic end (28 Days Later anyone …?)