by Jacob SullivanOn the surface, writer-director David Cronenberg’s feature film debut, Shivers, appears to be a schlocky exploitation film. All the sleazy clichés are present, from extreme gore to profuse nudity, with Shivers making no attempt to respect societal taboos — taboo-breaking that is just as shocking and revolting now as it was back in 1975. But much like the parasites that hide under the skin of their victims in the film, there is much more to Cronenberg’s debut than pure shock value. Beneath the surface, Cronenberg begins to explore the physicality of the human body as well as human nature and how it combats “civilized” morals and conventions—themes which the director would further explore in his later work.
Shivers (or They Came From Within, or The Parasite Murders, or my favorite alternate title, Orgy of the Blood Parasites) is set within a luxury apartment complex isolated on an island off the outskirts of a Canadian city. A jolting opening, which sees an old man breaking into a young woman’s room, strangling her to unconsciousness, then performing surgery on her before killing himself, sets an unapologetically nasty tone for what’s to come. Later, it is discovered that the old man was a mad doctor attempting to destroy a parasite he created and planted in the girl. The parasite, which looks like a combination of fecal and phallic, acts as an aphrodisiac, turning its hosts into a sort of zombie, but instead of flesh and brains, these zombies want sex. As the parasites spread throughout the complex, the building’s doctor (Paul Hampton) and nurse (Lynn Lowry) fight to survive.
While the audience has a semi-hero in the building’s doctor, Shivers is more of an ensemble piece. The film gives us glimpses into the lives of multiple residents in the soulless apartment complex, from the lonely divorcee (played by scream queen, Barbara Steele) to the cheating husband who was infected by patient zero to his sad wife and many more. This approach adds to the film’s fluid pacing and presents the audience with many colorful characters, but it doesn’t allow the viewer to connect strongly with any single character.
Just under 90 minutes, Shivers flies by rapidly as the disease spreads from victim to victim. The parasite transmits itself through the mouth, but many parasites, separate from a host, slither across the corridors of the complex, looking for a victim to leap into. By the halfway point, the whole building has already divulged into an orgy of sex fiends and violence. While not for the faint of heart, Shivers — apart from its more intelligent agenda — is still a disgusting blast, packing plenty of dark humor, gory killings, gratuitous sex and nudity, and shocking moments for a fun movie night with friends.
The shock and gore isn’t just senseless exploitation though, as the film explores middle class respectability and the repressed primal instinct that lies underneath this “civilized” veneer. The sexual zombies seem much happier and freer than the sad, lifeless occupants that inhabit the building. They are, in some way, liberated — no longer having to comply with societal standards or sexual taboos. No specific answers are given in regards to which way of living is correct, but Cronenberg already, as a young filmmaker, shows his ability to subvert and force his audience to ask questions about their physicality and human nature.
The small budget is very apparent in many scenes, but like many ’70s horror films with small budgets (such as The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), this gives the film a raw feel. The rawness is most apparent in deaths or violence that doesn’t involve the parasites. The parasites, on the other hand, look very cheap and unintentionally funny. While gross in appearance, it is still very obvious that the parasites are just nasty props being pulled across the floor by fishing line. That isn’t to say that the parasites don’t have their moments, though, for one of the bloodiest and most stomach-turning scenes in the film revolves around them. However, the parasites and effects would undoubtedly be even more disgusting if the film had the budget of Cronenberg’s later works.
Despite being thin on characters and budget, Shivers is a fun, gross and oddly intelligent ride, as well an important stepping stone in the history of horror cinema. Not only did the film introduce Cronenberg as a crucial voice in horror, but it pioneered the genre of “body horror” as well. Focusing on the frailty and mutilation of the human body, it’s a genre that Cronenberg would continue to define throughout his career.
3.5 out of 5 stars