Judge Brett Cullum sets the wayback machine to early in David Cronenberg's career to review this Canadian import.
I'm hungry. I'm hungry for love!
David Cronenberg's first feature for the big screen was a slimy, sterile spookfest about killer parasites that bring out the worst in people, set inside a modern apartment community. Sex, violence, and gore abound from a director who knew his formula from the start, and quickly started earning his sobriquet, "King of Venereal Horror." Shivers establishes the marrying of sexually transmitted fear with biological modification. For Cronenberg, horrors spring from modern advances in society, medical meddling, and primal base urges brought to the surface. Sex, science, and a need for violence are the touchstones of his films. Strange obsessions for a Canadian—it's no wonder Hollywood eventually came calling. Shivers can be seen as a fun early entry by Cronenberg. It's not as complex as many of his later efforts, and plays out strictly as a simple-minded horror movie with impressive ideas keeping it afloat.
At the start of Shivers, we are introduced to a fancy apartment building named Starliner Towers, which boasts well-appointed amenities such as breathtaking views, shops, restaurants, and its own medical clinic. Interspersed with shots of a young foreign couple touring the property is an old man brutally killing a young schoolgirl and trying to burn something inside her stomach with acid. Soon the apartment complex's doctor discovers the man was a professor, who was studying a parasite designed to make people healthier and increase their sexual drive. The bad news is the experiment went wrong, and the parasite also unleashed uncontrollable violent urges. Add to this the fact the young schoolgirl was sexually active within the apartment complex, and several men are already carriers of the bug. Soon, base instincts are running rampant, and residents are being infected with the critters left and right.
Most of the actors were novices, and Shivers was not graced with a high budget. Cronenberg had to juggle the heavy special effects with the dramatic scenes, and had a hard time addressing the dramatic needs of the production. Luckily, he does have a few standouts in the cast. Paul Hampton (Lady Sings the Blues) gets the lead role of Dr. Roger St. Luc, who realizes what is happening. He's pretty believable throughout, and gets the most active role in the film. Recognizable character actor Joe Silver (Deathtrap) plays Rollo Linski. Queen of Corman B-movies Barbara Steele (Piranha) makes an impression as the creepy, often waterlogged Betts, a striking brunette who gets infected in the bathtub and then appears later in the climax wading in the indoor pool.
There are images in Shivers that are powerful, even for a low-budget horror flick. Try to shake the shots inside the storage closets of the high-rise, or in the indoor pool at the climax. There's even a savage, brutal shot of two young girls on dog leashes barking in a controversial image of children infected with the parasite. Even though much of the film plays out like a more sexualized reimagining of Night of the Living Dead, there are moments when you can see the very start of what would make Cronenberg a visionary with his own signature stamp.
The DVD from Image is a low tech affair. The transfer is soft and reminiscent of a souped-up VHS version of the movie. This actually helps the film in an odd way, because on a big screen Shivers had easily detectable wires attached to the slug-like parasites as they moved around the set. Had the transfer been clearer, the primitive special effects would be more transparent. Sound is a one channel mono, but is clear enough to relay dialogue well. No subtitles are offered, which is a shame when the Canadian accents get too heavy for American ears. Thankfully, this doesn't happen often. The only notable extra is a 10 minute interview with Cronenberg filmed in the late '90s, with him discussing his early days and his work on Shivers. The US Amazon seems to no longer carry the title, but you can either purchase it used or hit up Amazon.ca (the Canadian version) for a new copy. Don't be fooled by the "Director's Cut" title, or the listed 150 minute run time shown on the box. No, there are no excised scenes thrown back into the film. Only the violence has been restored, and the run time includes the trailers and the interview which follow the feature. The actual movie still clocks in under an hour and a half, it's just uncensored and unrated.
On a purely speculative sociological level, we can read Shivers many different ways. Cronenberg sets up a residential tower for privileged yuppies seeking to distance themselves from the dregs of poverty and pollution. Yet biology becomes destiny, as a virus infects them causing them to commit violent sexual acts they seemed to have shunned. It's the ultimate revenge on the "me" generation, turning them in to orgiastic zombies who wander around partially clothed (or nude) looking for a victim to rape. Some people have contended perhaps this was a metaphor for the influence of American culture on Canadians; the commercial desires of the United States corrupting the very values of the Canadian people until they are nothing but mindless sex zombies looking for a quick fix. Read into the film what you want, because Cronenberg never offers an explanation in his interview, other than his fascination with disease and sex infiltrating society.
Shivers is a fun look at the early development of Cronenberg. It seems to contain all the basic elements that became his signature style, but they feel formative and not yet completely grown into the fully realized aesthetic that would dominate The Fly or Videodrome. It's a curiously entertaining entry for fans, and a nice starting point for viewers looking for a place to begin examining the director. It's nowhere near as complex or layered as his later pictures, but it's still deeper than most horror movies. It's a real classic of the genre, and in many ways slightly more watchable than the similarly themed Rabid, if only because it's not quite as vicious.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Interview with David Cronenberg
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