David Cronenberg’s first ‘mainstream’ movie is one of the most revolutionary, unsettling and provocative movies from the Golden Age of horror cinema.
Shivers is the film that put David Cronenberg on the map. Not his first feature, as many claim (unless you think that the 65-minute Stereo and 70-minute Crimes of the Future don’t count as feature-length), but certainly his first commercial movie, and the one that set the template for the director’s unique take on body horror that ran through the first half of his career. It’s also one of the seminal horror films of the 1970s – possibly, I would say, the best of the early Seventies horror revolution after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But Cronenberg in general and Shivers in particular always stood aside from the other films and filmmakers of the new horror generation. Despite their liberal politics and social message subtexts, directors like George Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter were essentially conservative in their approach to horror and sexuality. Sexual freedom in films like Halloween and Last House on the Left is essentially punished; infection in Romero’s Dead series is an apocalyptic judgement. Cronenberg was taking a different approach in this film, which is the inverse of Night of the Living Dead. The characters in Shivers seem to essentially be zombies when the film starts, living empty, plastic lives; the infection is a liberation. This isn’t about a virus that wants to destroy, but to breed. Romero’s zombies and crazies want to kill us, but Cronenberg’s infected want to fuck us. No wonder the film upset so many people – it’s not the violence but the sexuality that challenges here. In Cronenberg’s film, the normal world is the button-down 1950s and the parasites are bringing in the sexually liberated Sixties and Seventies. It’s notable that for all the sense of threat the film has on the surface, the person who does most of the killing in the film is our supposed hero.
Shivers opens with a slick, hard-sell promotional commercial for Starliner Towers, a luxury tower block that effectively exists as a small, insular town, complete with its own medical facilities, golf courses and swimming pool. It’s a masterstroke from Cronenberg, allowing him the scope to tell a classic small-town takeover story (the sort we’ve seen in films from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Crazies) but to contain it all within a single location, making it much more claustrophobic and cut off. It also shows immediately the sterile world that the characters occupy. Like any gated community, it’s a place that likes to pretend that the rest of the world is another planet. And like any insular community, it has its dark secrets. In this case, it’s Dr Emil Hobbes, who we see violently attacking a young girl.
Immediately, the film sets out to unsettle with its take on sexuality. The girl, Annabelle, is wearing a school uniform – is she a child? Is this rape? That her skirt rides up to reveal her skimpy underwear might seem a crass and exploitative move normally, as would the subsequent moment where the unconscious girl has her shirt ripped open. But here, it feels like a deliberate provocation. Cronenberg angles the camera to show her bare breasts in a sexual manner – yet she is being slit open and having acid poured into her stomach. Sex and violence are blended in an uncomfortable way here, and it’s far from simply exploitation. It’s the first of a number of taboo elements in the film where Cronenberg sets out to deliberately make us feel uncomfortable, and often, the imagery is more unsettling today than it was at the time. While the gay and lesbian scenes might no longer shock, the references to incest and paedophilia (why is a nineteen-year-old dressed as a schoolgirl? To please Hobbes, who we find out began a relationship with her when she was twelve?) would almost certainly be too difficult for any filmmaker to tackle today.
It turns out that Hobbes has been breeding a new parasite, designed to liberate the hosts sexually, and Annabelle was the test subject. Unfortunately, she was also a popular young woman around the building, and several men have come down with unexplained, free-moving abdominal lumps.
If the film has a weakness, it’s the perhaps inevitable telegraphing of infection. Alan Migicovsky as Nicholas Tudor, one of the first infected by the girl, seems to develop his symptoms slowly, over days perhaps, yet by the end of the film, people are ‘turned’ the moment that the parasite enters the body (and while usually transmitted mouth to mouth, the bugs are able to survive outside the body and launch themselves at unsuspecting victims). The narrative, of course, demands rapid infection, but it does raise eyebrows from time to time.
The parasites rapidly spread throughout the building, and soon, it seems only Dr Roger St Luc (Paul Hampton) is uninfected. St Luc is a classic 1970s horror hero – hapless, useless and continually making the wrong choices. More significantly for the film, he’s the one who seems most in need of liberation. Early in the movie, he watches dispassionately as sexy Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry, very much the queen of Seventies viral horror, having starred in this, I Drink Your Blood and The Crazies in a few short years) strips in front of him – he might as well be watching her do the dishes for all the interest he shows, and her attempts at romance and seduction are brushed off. When he is finally surrounded and given the kiss that will transfer a parasite, it feels more like a moment of celebration than a final scene of horror. The good guys, it seems, have won after all.
It might be a step too far to refer to Shivers as an erotic film – it’s certainly structured like a horror movie, and I suspect for many viewers, the whole idea remains a terrifying one. But this is a film that subverts the usual horror movie tropes. You can watch it as a straight-ahead alien takeover/end of civilisation movie if you so wish, but it’s actually quite the opposite. The infected are not aiming to destroy humanity, they just want to instigate one massive love-in. It’s the uninfected who are the violent ones, Tudor excepted perhaps (and his one killing is more an act of desperation to save his parasite ‘babies’). Hobbes kills Annabelle because his experiment worked too well; St Luc kills several people throughout the movie (and this is the only time he shows any sense of passion, interestingly). Hobbes and St Luc are like the censors, the moralists and the puritans, trying to stop the spread of the ‘permissive society’. They are not heroic figures within the context of the film.
Shivers still holds up very well today. It’s cheap-looking, certainly, and the low budget grittiness sometimes clashes with the pristine nature of the restoration (you can now see the wires pulling the parasites along!), but that classic 1970s low rent, seat-of-the-pants style also gives the film a certain edge that ensures it is more authentic than a slicker movie might have been. This almost guerilla filmmaker look is complemented by the acting and dialogue, much of which has the naturalistic style you’d more naturally associate with Cassavetes than horror cinema. Cronenberg’s early films are often criticised for having weak leading men, and certainly Hampton is not the world’s most dynamic actor – but this suits the character here, given how emotionally dead he is supposed to be. And he’s backed by great turns from Joe Silver and Ronald Mlodzik, both Cronenberg regulars in these early films, and strong female characters. Lowry is excellent here, delivering the film’s famous “even dying is an act of eroticism” monologue with great style and allowing her shift from ‘normal’ to ‘infected’ to take place almost imperceptively. Barbara Steele might have seemed a risk to include, given her horror rep, but this is a decade after her Italian gothics, meaning she doesn’t have that immediate sense of association, and she’s impressive here, while Susan Petrie – who Cronenberg famously had to slap to get to an emotional place – brings more strength to her put-upon housewife role than you would expect. And the small parts all add to the film, creating sinister, creepy characters with their few moments of screen time. It’s only at the end of the film, where some of them start to go all Night of the Living Dead, that you feel Cronenberg should’ve perhaps had a tighter grip on performances (or at least cut a couple of shots and removed the annoying zombie crowd murmur from the soundtrack).
This brief moment aside, Cronenberg directs with real style – he keeps the action flowing but knows when to slow it down, he produces some great set pieces (a car wreck scene prefigures Crash) and injects just the right amount of humour into the story. Joe Blasco’s ground-breaking special effects still hold up today, and the parasites – looking like a cross between a penis (especially in the infamous bathtub scene) and a turd – transcend the crudeness of construction to remain thoroughly revolting. Cronenberg’s use of library music is also excellent – the film’s main theme is better than most commissioned film music. There are a few continuity issues of course – as much artistic licence than blunders – and the film certainly doesn’t have the slickness of his later work, but for a first commercial movie, this must rank amongst the very best.
Shivers shows the beginnings of a filmmaker with bold and original ideas, a sense of style and a willingness to push at the boundaries of what commercial cinema will allow. Looking at it now, it’s at once a million miles away from and directly connected to modern-day Cronenberg. And it remains one of the genre greats.